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The WISEST way

Making UIC a better place for female faculty

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artwork of woman juggling many tasks

“Many faculty women are fulfilling two huge roles — a demanding position and a demanding personal life,” says WISEST program director Linda Siebert.

Illustration: Anna Dworzecka

Over the last five years, one campus initiative has made a priority of improving the climate for female faculty members — particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The National Science Foundation grant that funds the Women in Science and Engineering System Transformation (WISEST) program ends next July. But efforts to support women in the STEM disciplines will continue, program leaders say.

WISEST is the work of many people, faculty, administrators and staff who wanted to make a difference,” said Mo-Yin Tam, vice provost for faculty affairs and the grant’s principal investigator.

“It’s really a process that I think has made a difference for the institution.”

The WISEST program was charged with increasing the number, participation and leadership status of women in the sciences through institutional transformation.

That goal has largely been met, said Provost R. Michael Tanner, through recruitment, retention, mentoring and university-wide policy changes.

“We’ve had a lot of impact,” said Tanner, chair of the WISEST executive committee.

“We’ve tried to change the climate and put things in place that will help women have successful careers.”

Before WISEST, some departments in the academic sciences and engineering had only one or two female faculty members, if any.

Since 2006, the number of female faculty members in the 11 STEM disciplines has increased from 33 to 48. The number of underrepresented minority women has risen from four to eight.

Of 15 new female faculty members, 12 received start-up funding from WISEST to get their research going.

“Those funds were critical for helping me purchase the supplies for my lab and to hire students,” said Terri Long, assistant professor of biological sciences.

“And WISEST’s welcoming spirit is just as important as the funds that I have been given.”

All the female faculty members recruited with the support of WISEST have remained at UIC, said Linda Siebert, the program’s director.

“We were able to help bring in outstanding women, there was no competitive attrition after the first year of the grant, and we saw significant number of promotions to associate and full professor ranks,” she said.


Recruitment, retention

WISEST developed a training program for department heads and search committees that aims to eliminate unconscious bias during the hiring process, Siebert said.

Presented by facilitators who are active research faculty, the training provides a template to objectively evaluate candidates based on their qualifications.

“We all have biases, and sometimes we may resort to these gender stereotypes when we evaluate candidates,” Siebert said.

“Even if you have an equally qualified man versus woman, often the women are given, for example, reference letters that talk about their personality rather than their hard science capability.”

The training isn’t designed to help department heads and committees specifically select women — it’s geared toward finding the best candidate, Tam said.

“We don’t want women here because they are women, but because they are excellent,” she said.

The number of female faculty members in a department makes a difference, Siebert said.

“When there are only a few, what can happen is that sometimes their voices may not be heard as loud as the men,” she said.

“Women can also feel isolated — they often don’t have colleagues that they can actually talk to, let alone cross over to a different department to create a collaborative working relationship with another faculty member.”

WISEST recruited five underrepresented minority women for its Postdoctoral Associates for Academic Diversity program.

The participants were mentored by senior faculty members as they conducted post-doctoral research in their own area of interest. They also participated in seminars on topics such as work/life balance, grant writing, interview skills and negotiating an academic position.

“These unique features really put them in a position of advantage compared to other fresh postdocs and Ph.D.s in the market,” said Manorama Mocherla Khare, WISEST evaluator and senior research specialist at the Center for Research on Women and Gender.

Four of the women continued their academic careers after the program, Tam said, including two who remained at UIC — Belinda Akpa, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and Helena Puche, adjunct research assistant professor in biological sciences.

“I am glad that I had the opportunity to talk with other successful female scientists about their strategies to overcome conflicts between professional and personal interests,” said Yaniria Sanchez de Leon, a WISEST post-doc who is now an assistant professor in agricultural technology and natural sciences at the University of Puerto Rico at Utuado.

“Much of the information that was discussed in the workshops or in meetings with my mentors has helped me to assign priorities based on my career and personal goals.”

WISEST also supports faculty members with mentoring and networking opportunities, as well as money for lab supplies and other equipment, Tam said.

“When there’s a concern, we hear it and act on it,” she said.


Family-friendly policies

Several university-wide policies that benefit both men and women have come with the support of the WISEST program, Tam said.

An automatic rollback policy stops the tenure clock for faculty members after the birth of a new child or adoption of a child younger than 6.

“We had a tenure rollback policy, but it was never automatic,” Tam said.

“Some women said they knew it was there but they didn’t want to take advantage of it because they didn’t want to be stigmatized and to have others think they could not do their research.”

The Modified Duties for Faculty Members with a New Child policy, enacted in 2009, gives tenure-system faculty the chance to be relieved of their teaching responsibilities for a semester after the birth or adoption of a child.

The policy requires faculty members to complete other academic responsibilities, such as conducting research or giving presentations.

The Faculty Infant/Toddler/Child and Elder Care Resources and Referral Pilot Program, which began in April, offers referral services for faculty members in search of caregivers for their young children or elderly parents.

“Many faculty women are fulfilling two huge roles — a demanding position and a demanding personal life,” Siebert said.


The future

Although the grant ends in eight months, the legacy of the WISEST program will live on, said Siebert.

“We want to go beyond the boundaries of STEM to really be a part of the culture and efforts to create a diverse faculty that mirrors the student body,” she said.

“The WISEST effort has brought many stakeholders together, united in an effort to truly transform the climate within STEM and to truly impact UIC forever.”

Siebert and Tam hope to continue the training for search committees, expanding to departments beyond the STEM disciplines.

They want to keep recruiting top female faculty members with money remaining from the grant.

Networking, leadership seminars and mentoring opportunities will also continue.

“We want female faculty members to nurture the next generation by saying, ‘You can be a professor too, think about it as a career,’” Siebert said.

WISEST will conduct a survey to gauge the challenges female faculty members still face, and UIC will continue to address them, Tam said.

Women faculty members in the STEM disciplines have told Khare the WISEST program has made a difference.

“Women feel like their needs are being heard,” she said.


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