URI celebrates 10th year of initiative to advance careers of women in science

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KINGSTON, R.I. – June 4, 2013 – A decade ago, there was a dearth of female faculty members in the science departments at most universities around the country, and the University of Rhode Island was no different. But thanks in part to a grant from the National Science Foundation in 2003, URI is celebrating the 10th anniversary of an initiative that has recruited a growing number of women to science faculty positions and established policies and programs that have created a more welcoming and supportive environment for them.

The NSF ADVANCE program awarded URI $3.5 million, with a 20 percent match from the University, which was largely used to hire nine female faculty members in the physics, oceanography, engineering, and life science programs.

“This program helped to dismantle the myths about why women aren’t usually hired in these disciplines – that there aren’t enough women available, that they’re not serious about their careers, and that the available women aren’t very good,” said Barbara Silver, assistant research professor and director of the ADVANCE initiative at URI. “Because the recruitment program was so high profile, it spotlighted how incredibly talented and successful these women were. We think that paved the way for everything else that followed.”

Those hired through the grant are Kathleen Donohue, Katherine Kelley, Rebecca Robinson and Tatiana Rynearson at the Graduate School of Oceanography, Mayrai Gindy and Yan Sun in the College of Engineering, Rebecca Brown and Bethany Jenkins in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, and Yana Reshetnyak in the Department of Physics.

“The hiring of four young female scientists in 2008 through the NSF Advance Program literally changed the face of the faculty at the Graduate School of Oceanography,” said David Smith, GSO associate dean. “We have seen increases in the number of women graduate students over the years, and it is great to see that now being reflected in the makeup of the faculty. Most importantly, these new faculty members have been contributing greatly to our mission. All four have earned tenure and I expect their research efforts will continue to enhance GSO’s international reputation for years to come.”

In addition to the nine faculty members funded by the grant, another 10 or so female faculty were hired after search committees were educated about best practices in diversifying faculty. Fifty-four percent of new faculty hires in the science programs at URI were women in the four years after the ADVANCE initiative began, compared to 24 percent in the prior three years.

According to Silver, the ADVANCE program also made strides in “warming the climate” for women faculty members by establishing a faculty mentor program, offering career workshops and mini-grants, providing networking opportunities, conducting department climate workshops, co-authoring a paid parental leave policy and a dual career hiring policy, and creating an award-winning lactation program, among other steps. The ADVANCE Leadership Team was active in a variety of early campus efforts that have culminated in the establishment of the URI Equity Council and to diversity committees in every college on campus. The program published handbooks on faculty recruitment, faculty mentoring, and family leave and created an ADVANCE and a URI Work-Life website.

“The idea was that this program would transform the institution with policies and practices that would remain permanent,” said Silver. “We have accomplished that to some degree. More important, we believe the program significantly contributed to the improved climate we have at URI today where conversations on these topics can be had more comfortably across many venues.”

Silver said that URI still needs to attract more women to leadership roles on campus, and she expects that as the new cohort of female faculty rise in rank, they will begin to fill those leadership roles.

“The program has a visible legacy, and even though the grant funding is gone, and more needs to be done, we’re still moving in the right direction,” Silver said. “It all started with those first nine faculty hires. They’re all tenured now, they’re all successful, and they’re all still here. What is most affirming is the gratitude they have for the ADVANCE program. That’s a great feather in our cap.”