If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Gender Equity

Workshop looks at ways to make academic chemistry department positions more inviting to women

by Susan R. Morrissey
February 13, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 7

At Work
Credit: Photo by Susan Morrissey
Workshop steering committee member and chemistry professor at the University of Kansas Kristin Bowman-James (right) converses with Mostafa El-Sayed, chemistry professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Kuck.
Credit: Photo by Susan Morrissey
Workshop steering committee member and chemistry professor at the University of Kansas Kristin Bowman-James (right) converses with Mostafa El-Sayed, chemistry professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Kuck.

It's no secret that the number of women on the faculty of chemistry departments across the U.S. is small. This fact is in contrast to the robust pipeline filled with a healthy representation of women earning advanced degrees in the chemical sciences. So why aren't more of these qualified women entering the academic professorate?

That is the question a group of nearly 55 department chairs or their representatives and more than 60 other academic, government, and national chemistry leaders gathered to discuss in Washington, D.C., at the end of January. The group, which included representatives from each of the top 50 U.S. research institutions, took part in a workshop titled "Building Strong Academic Chemistry Departments through Gender Equity." The workshop was sponsored by the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation, which all had representatives on hand.

"This workshop is not the first on the subject of gender equity in academia," explained Kendall N. Houk, workshop cochair and chemistry professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Yet the workshop is entirely unique in bringing together the chairs of the major research institutions of the U.S. with the support of the three federal agencies that support chemistry," he said at the meeting.

Among the goals of the workshop were to educate the chemical community-departments and federal agencies supporting chemical research-about the issue of gender equity and to develop a set of best practices that departments could use to develop more welcoming working environments, said Cynthia M. Friend, workshop cochair and chemistry professor at Harvard University. "The high turnout of department chairs shows that people are interested in addressing this issue," she noted.

One of the most talked-about presentations was made by Virginia Valian, a psychology professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York, who discussed subconscious social biases. Referring to these biases as "gender schemas," she noted that they are understandings held by men and women of the gender roles in society.

According to Valian, gender schemas are applied equally by men and women, unintentionally and unknowingly. For example, she discussed the results of a study that looked at how competent men and women are viewed in society. The study, which included both sexes, showed that a competent male is viewed as likable, whereas a competent female is seen as unlikable and cold. The reason for this result, Valian explained, was that a strong, competent woman goes against the gender schemas.

Valian cautioned that people must be aware of these subconscious biases because they systematically disadvantage women. And although women often ignore these subtle actions, disadvantages that result from these biases add up over time. After all, she pointed out: "Mountains are just molehills piled one on another."

"I thought I was pretty aware, but this workshop has increased my sensitivities," said Michael P. Doyle, chemistry professor and department chair at the University of Maryland. He added that Valian's presentation along with the other presentations stimulated discussions that went beyond what he expected at the onset of the workshop.

Similarly, University of Wisconsin, Madison, chemistry professor Charles P. Casey found Valian's presentation thought provoking. "I am one of those people who thought I was not biased, but now I see I have hidden biases," he said, adding that he knows many others on campus have these subconscious biases, too.

Valian also discussed three principles to follow in addressing the poor representation of female professors in academic chemistry departments. First, she said that gender issues are a window into institutional effectiveness: Systemic problems are often first brought to light as gender issues. She cautioned the attendees, therefore, not to fall into the trap of addressing the problems as purely gender related. Instead, she told the participants to "fix the system, not the woman, because she isn't broken."

That leaders must lead was another key point Valian stressed. This principle applies to faculty all the way up the administrative chain, she said. And finally, she noted that a continuous thread connects undergraduate students to graduate students to postdocs to faculty members. "To make progress on this issue, you must intervene early on as well as at the top," she noted.

This last point struck a chord with workshop participant Valerie J. Kuck, visiting professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department and in the women's studies program at Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J. Kuck, who has spent a considerable amount of time studying gender issues, believes that creating a welcoming environment for graduate students is essential to pulling more women into the academic professorate.

"After all my interviews with hundreds of graduate students, I realize that experiences in graduate school can impact career choice," Kuck told C&EN after the meeting. "Some of the ideas raised at this workshop will influence positively the environment in graduate school and make it more welcoming for women," she noted.

The impact of this workshop's recommendations, Kuck noted, will go beyond the top 50 institutions represented. "The impact of such initiatives will not only improve the situation at these schools but will also trickle down to other four-year institutions" and effect change at all levels, she said.

Creating a more welcoming and level playing field for women was also the focus of the presentation by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). He discussed the ways in which the government can use Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 to help ensure the inclusion of women in academic science positions, but he noted that many of the embedded issues, such as laboratory space allocation, would be best addressed by institutions themselves.

Credit: Photodisc
The low representation of women in academic faculty positions prompted chemical community leaders to come together.
Credit: Photodisc
The low representation of women in academic faculty positions prompted chemical community leaders to come together.

Title IX, Wyden noted, is not intended just to address gender equity in sports. He explained that Title IX also can be used as leverage to get more women into academia. In fact, he noted, the original intent of the law was for equity in academics, although it has most notably been applied to sports.

"We can do for academics what we've done for sports through Title IX," Wyden told the conference. To that end, Wyden called on federal agencies to set an example for the academic community by requiring grantee institutions to follow Title IX. He also noted that academic institutions must be responsible for ensuring fair distribution of research grants.

Wyden called on the participants to take their message to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. He noted the importance of having an advocate at the presidential Cabinet level to maximize efforts in this area. "There is no substitute for having this kind of visibility," he added.

Federal agencies can also help draw attention to the issue of gender equity to enable change. Michael S. Turner, assistant director of NSF's Mathematical & Physical Sciences Directorate, told the attendees that NSF can serve as a bully pulpit for the issue. The foundation can also develop programs that address some of the issues and lead by example with its own workforce, of which women constitute a large percentage.

Speaking for the Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences Associate Director Patricia Dehmer noted that the representation of women at the national laboratories is not good enough. She said that more steps have to be taken to make academic and national research laboratory careers more attractive workplaces for women. For hiring practices to change, hiring officials must also believe that a diverse staff is both necessary and desirable.

National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Director Jeremy M. Berg noted that it is essential for federal science agencies to take a leadership role in this area and maintain responsibility. He advocated for departments to find gender-neutral ways to improve their environments, such as ensuring mentoring of both young male and female faculty.

Throughout the workshop, discussion focused on finding ways to make the profession more attractive and to create a better academic environment for women. For example, at the department level, programs to educate the entire faculty and student body about the subconscious biases and other actions that disadvantage women and minorities were discussed. Other possible actions include taking steps to increase the number of women in the applicant pools in faculty job searches, developing ways to facilitate career-building opportunities, and giving consideration to family obligations in scheduling of department meetings.

At the institution level, suggestions included making diversity an academic priority and developing programs to enhance recruitment and retention of faculty. Policies could not only encourage the hiring of women but also could be aimed at easing issues related to hiring of couples. Women should also be placed in institution leadership roles, and child care issues should be addressed.

As for the federal agencies, the conference participants would like them to consider mandatory diversity training for reviewers and grantees. The attendees noted that it is important for the agencies to ensure Title IX compliance as well as to make sure women are represented in their programs and prestigious awards.

At the conclusion of the workshop, each of the chairs and other representatives was charged with taking at least two suggestions back to his or her department for implementation and was asked to report back on the outcome. Workshop organizers noted that they will follow up with the attendees by means of surveys and that they will work with the sponsoring federal agencies to hold a workshop next year.

"If, as a result of the workshop, one or two significant changes were to occur across the wide range of departments, labs, and institutions represented, it will have been a great success," said Stephen J. Lippard, chemistry professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As for what changes to focus on, Lippard's favorites are providing more resources for affordable child care for all employees and instituting gender-equity training programs.

Texas A&M University chemistry department chairman and professor Emile A. Schweikert noted that he will work with his department to "start an effort to identify and cultivate potential female and minority candidates early on, that is, when they are in the later stages of graduate school." He also added that it is important to think about ways to facilitate the reentry into academia of women who have taken time off to have children by removing limitations on postdoc fellowships and starter grants.

In an effort to increase the number of women in the application pool, Louisiana State University chemistry professor Luigi Marzilli told C&EN that he will convey the importance of open searches, which are not targeted at a specific area of research. "My conveying the fact that so many other departments conduct open searches may help convince other faculty members that the department should have searches more broadly defined in terms of the field of research," he noted.

"The workshop was intense and thought provoking, and although some of the issues discussed were relatively straightforward-for example, child care-others were difficult," said University of Minnesota chemistry department chair and professor Jeffrey Roberts. Identifying specific changes will require deep thought, he added, but noted that he would "be bringing up the point that funding agencies may be asking for education in gender equity, so that we can begin to think proactively about what such a curriculum might look like."

As the participants work toward implementing action items from the workshop, the organizers realize this will be a long process. "We should not get discouraged," said Michael E. Rogers, director of the Division of Pharmacology, Physiology & Biological Chemistry at NIGMS and a federal agency adviser for the workshop. "We need to expect that this will require a sustained effort of strong leadership over a number of years," he explained.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.