Midwest schools join forces to promote faculty success for women in STEM fields

Cinzia Cervato addresses a class.

Cinzia Cervato of Iowa State University is leading a four-campus effort to promote faculty success for women at Midwestern research universities in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Larger photo. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

AMES, Iowa – Cinzia Cervato knows – and has lived – the challenges women faculty in science and technology fields can face in their departments and their families:

Only tenure-track woman in her department. Check.

Carefully made day care plans falling through. Check.

Asking herself, “Where am I going to get the support?” Check.

Cervato, a Morrill Professor of geological and atmospheric sciences at Iowa State University, is leading collaborators across campus and from three other Midwestern research universities who will develop strategies and tools that could help women of color and women with family responsibilities find faculty success in science, technology, engineering or math fields (STEM).

The idea is for the four Midwestern universities to join forces, collect data, determine useful strategies, develop an Integrated Equity Support toolbox and start a caucus to promote and distribute that toolbox.

The project is supported by a three-year, $996,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program dedicated to advancing gender equity in academic STEM careers.

In addition to Iowa State, partner universities are Michigan Technological University in Houghton, North Dakota State University in Fargo and Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

Iowa State collaborators are Dawn Bratsch-Prince, associate provost for faculty; Gül Kremer, professor and C.G. “Turk” & Joyce A. Therkildsen Department Chair in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering; Jo Anne Powell-Coffman, an associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Raj Raman, Morrill Professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering; and Robert Reason, associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs in the College of Human Sciences and professor in the School of Education.

Project leaders for the other partnership schools are Canan Bilen-Green, the vice provost for faculty and equity at North Dakota State; Carla Koretsky, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of geological and environmental sciences at Western Michigan; and Adrienne Minerick, dean of the College of Computing and professor of chemical engineering at Michigan Tech.

Their goal: “The long-term outcome of this project is expected to be increased retention and career advancement at Midwestern universities of underrepresented women and women with family responsibilities in STEM departments,” the researchers wrote in a summary of their project.

“Our focus is the issues that women with families and women of color face at Midwest research institutions,” Cervato said.

Day care, for example, can be a major issue for faculty, especially if they’re from outside the region and family support is far away.

Some universities (such as Iowa State) offer day-care services, but there can be waiting lists and getting and holding a spot can be a long process.

Or, Cervato said, women of color can feel isolated in the mostly white college towns of the Midwest.

In both instances, frustrations can lead to women leaving Midwestern universities.

The partner schools will address that by developing a four-part system: a mentoring community across the universities; a system of male advocates and allies on the campuses; professional development for department chairs; and a caucus that will support the project and promote it beyond the original universities.

The project will be implemented in three phases, including adapting existing programs on the campuses, sharing those programs across the campuses, creating a pilot program at Western Michigan and sharing the project’s findings and tools.

The researchers intend to measure their progress by analyzing data, assessing outcomes and inviting in external evaluators.

But they’ll also start a conversation.

“The caucus component will bring in discussion and conversation,” Cervato said. “For example, ‘This worked for us,’ or ‘We had these issues,’ or ‘How did you handle that?’”

In the end, the researchers hope they can start to build a new checklist:

Faculty success in STEM fields for underrepresented women at Midwestern research universities. Check.

Faculty success in STEM fields for women with family responsibilities at Midwestern research universities. Check.