BU Women in STEM: The History

BU Women in STEM: The History

In 2004, Sheryl Grace (Mechanical Engineering) and Mary Erskine (Biology) led efforts to form WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) at Boston University to bring together female STEM faculty and to engage outside experts such as Susan Brainerd (University of Washington ADVANCE program) to assess the state of affairs for women in STEM at Boston University. Roscoe Giles (Electrical Engineering) was also active in these efforts and connected WISE to Carol Neidle (Linguistics; Chair of the Equity and Inclusion subcommittee of the Faculty Council). Neidle’s knowledge and expertise was critical in the collection and analytical assessment of key data such as faculty demographics, hiring rate, retention rates.

Prior to the formation of WISE, other opportunities did exist for women in STEM at Boston University to network and obtain peer mentoring.  An ad hoc gathering of the women faculty in engineering had been taking place once per semester starting as early as 1993.  And in 1994, the Pathways program (an outreach program for younger women to explore STEM opportunities), brought together female faculty in STEM from the Charles River Campus (CRC) and the Medical Campus to plan and run the event.  Those meetings as well as the event itself provided networking and mentoring opportunities.

The main motivation for the formation of WISE in 2004 was a realization that female faculty at the rank of Associate Professor were leaving Boston University for positions at other universities at especially high rates when compared to their male counterparts.  At the same time, Sheryl Grace had been visiting colleagues at universities with ADVANCE programs as well as colleagues involved in WEPAN. These visits brought to her attention strategies that had been implemented at other universities to address unconscious bias, systematic discrimination, and dual-career issues. She sought out help from Mary Erskine who was a senior faculty member in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and Cynthia Brossman of LERNet who had been a chief organizer of the Pathways events. Both were well connected to the women faculty in CAS and were instrumental in making the early WISE meetings a reality.

In 2004, WISE was asked by David Campbell, who was the University Provost at that time, to adopt a leadership model of a rotating Chair.  Over the subsequent years the list of chairs included Sheryl Grace (Mechanical Engineering), Meena Narain (Physics), Deborah Belle (Psychology), Rama Bansil (Physics), Margrit Betke (Computer Science), and Laurel Smith-Doerr (Sociology).  The WISE faculty group encompassed faculty from the College of Engineering, College of Arts and Sciences, and Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

Over the years WISE was in existence, it sponsored monthly “Lunches with Leaders”, one to three university-wide events each year focused on dissemination of information known about gender issues in the workplace, one to two professional development programs each year for women faculty in STEM, a book club, a writers workshop, and small peer-mentoring groups.  WISE also helped in recruiting women faculty and continued to present data to Chairs and Deans concerning gender gaps in their units.   WISE was initially funded by contributions from departments and colleges, but later was fully funded by the offices of the Provost and President.

In 2008, Deborah Belle and Sheryl Grace, with support from Carol Neidle, prepared a proposal, “WIN: Women in Networks,” that was funded by the National Science Foundation. As part of WIN, a pre-tenure mentoring program for all STEM faculty on CRC was developed, networking receptions to welcome new faculty were hosted yearly, a WIN Colloquia series was sponsored, and multiple grants, named after the late Mary Erskine, were awarded internally to catalyze new research collaborations that involved Boston University women faculty. Of great importance was the ongoing data analysis performed by Carol Neidle as part of the WIN project because this provided key data (by gender, ethnicity, tenure status, rank, and discipline) on (1) representation on the faculty, and in specific types of leadership positions, (2) rates and patterns of hiring, attrition, tenure, and promotion, and (3) average salaries as well as non-salary compensation.

In 2011, Jean Morrison, who previously served as the Director of the WISE program at the University of Southern California (USC), was appointed as Provost at Boston University.  The USC program supported women in STEM at every stage of their career. At Boston University, Provost Morrison initiated a set of town hall meetings to assess WISE’s influence to effect change, to determine faculty needs, and to identify how best to serve these needs. The WIN report revealed that between AY 2006-2007 and AY 2010-2011, tenured and tenure-track faculty female representation in STEM departments increased, but this gain was only at the Assistant Professor rank. The report noted that ‘attrition by female faculty in the sciences and engineering remained disproportionately high, and there was no increase in female representation among Associate and Full Professors’. In addition, the report showed that the most common position for male faculty members to hold at Boston University is (full) Professor, whereas the most common position for female faculty members is not even tenure-track.  Many of the programs introduced by WISE and WIN were highly successful and contributed significantly to the increases in representation at the Assistant Professor level. Yet support is needed to bring women into senior and leadership positions at Boston University.

In Fall 2013, Provost Jean Morrison appointed Joyce Wong (Biomedical Engineering) to be Director of an umbrella entity whose mission is to vertically integrate existing programs and to create new programs to advance women at all stages in their career in STEM at Boston University. After several town hall meetings with faculty, ARROWS at Boston University was created in late Spring 2014. ARROWS will build on the mission of WISE, which was to advocate for female faculty by using data-driven methods to ensure that women were being treated equally to their male counterparts in regard to salary, hiring, promotion and retention. ARROWS will continue to expand upon successful WISE and WIN programs that focused on mentoring, networking, and professional development (e.g. negotiation and communication workshops), as well as continuing speaker series that raise awareness of gender bias.