KINGSTON, R.I. – Aug. 30, 2016 — As Yan Sun pursued career opportunities after earning her doctorate in computer and electrical engineering in 2004, her interview at one university told her all she needed to know about whether she wanted to work there. The hiring personnel gently hinted to Sun that female faculty at the school were encouraged to wait until after they made tenure to have children.
Meanwhile, during her interview at the University of Rhode Island, Sun found the atmosphere much more welcoming, with emphasis placed on the school’s parental leave policy, the availability of nursing rooms on campus and programs to address the concerns, issues and challenges women face working in the male-dominated science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
It was exactly the kind of support she was looking for. She joined the university’s faculty, in large part because of a $3.5 million ADVANCE grant from the National Science Foundation to promote the hiring and retention of women in the STEM disciplines.
The seeds sown by the 2003 grant continue to bear fruit at the university where Sun and three other ADVANCE Fellows – Katherine Kelley, Tatiana Rynearson and Rebecca Robinson, all professors in the Graduate School of Oceanography – were recently promoted to full professor. They joined Yana Reshetnyak, another ADVANCE Fellow who was promoted to full professor of physics in 2013.
Barbara Silver, an associate professor of research in the URI Labor Research Center, wrote the grant proposal and served as the director of the program until 2009, when it expired. The grant acknowledged the University’s shortcomings in hiring and supporting women in the STEM disciplines, and sought to hire and retain talented women scientists.
“The ADVANCE Program really helped show how stellar and capable these women scientists are, and it helped dispel the myth that women scientists are inferior to their male colleagues,” Silver said. “They’ve been so successful and it might not have been possible to hire them without the funds provided by this grant.”
With additional contributions from the University, the funding total rose to $4.2 million to increase the number of tenured women scientists and engineers; to support existing women faculty with career development and training opportunities; to improve social supports; to promote awareness of issues faced by women in science and engineering across the campus; and to apply a highly successful URI-developed model to transform the institutional culture for women scientists and engineers so that it could be adapted nationwide.
When the ADVANCE program began, there were 44 full-time women faculty in the STEM fields, representing 18 percent of STEM faculty at URI. ADVANCE’s five-year goal was to increase the STEM number by 10, a goal it achieved in just two years.
There are now 81 women serving as tenured or tenure-track faculty in the STEM disciplines, nearly double the 44 employed by the University in 2003 before the ADVANCE grant was received.
Overall, women now comprise 28 percent of URI’s faculty in the STEM disciplines, compared to the national average of 25 percent as of 2013, according to the National Science Foundation.
All nine of the women hired as ADVANCE Fellows remain as faculty at URI today. In addition to Sun, Kelley, Rynearson and Robinson, the ADVANCE Fellows are: Rebecca Nelson Brown, an associate professor of plant sciences; Kathleen Donohue, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Oceanography, Mayra Gindy, an associate professor and department chair of civil and environmental engineering; and Bethany Jenkins, an associate professor of cell and molecular biology.
“I think it says a lot about the ADVANCE program that five of us have achieved full professor status and have chosen to stay here,” Robinson said. “It suggests that not only are these women capable of doing incredibly good work, but they want to do it here at a University that supports and encourages them.”
In an effort to effectively search for and hire top female applicants, at least one ADVANCE leadership team member was a part of each search committee for the nine Fellows who were eventually hired. The search committees and their departments received ADVANCE training and/or consultation, including attention to the special issues of female applicants.
For instance, the hiring committee took applicants to lunch, where sensitive questions such as the parental leave policy could be discussed in a comfortable and welcoming environment. It meant a lot to Sun after her other interview experience.
“People here realize the challenges you face as a woman and they make it so you don’t feel weird about it. They showed me I would have the support I needed to pursue both my career goals and my family goals,” said Sun, who now has two children – Cedric, 11, and Miranda, 8. “The choice became very clear for me that it was URI.”
That support didn’t end with the Fellows’ hiring, though. Mentoring programs, luncheons with guest speakers and reduced teaching obligations in the first three years allowed the Fellows to bond, share their experiences and focus on getting their research projects off the ground.
“I think hiring the group of us as a whole, our cohort, it was instrumental in retaining all of us,” Kelley said. “We came in with a group of colleagues that we could always talk to and who were at the same stages in their careers and in life. I wouldn’t have gotten that at any of the other universities I was looking at. Having a core group like that was important.”
The ADVANCE Fellows are the faces of the program’s success, but the roots of the program have proven strong enough to produce a sort of faculty tree, by which the presence of the Fellows has encouraged and inspired their female students to pursue career paths that might once have seemed unwelcoming or unattainable.
“I think the biggest impact it has is on the students who see so many women in their field who are able to achieve that work-life balance,” Sun said. “I had a student who was not considering a STEM career, but she got to know me and I told her about the support structure here. She went on to become one of my graduate students and eventually she earned a faculty position here, too.”