Boston University Receives $750,000 Grant to Strengthen Women’s Professional Networks in Science and Engineering

in College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Education, News Releases, University Affairs
November 20th, 2008

Contact: Amy Biderman, 617-358-1185 | amyjb@bu.edu

(Boston) –The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a three-year grant to Boston University for a project to help women faculty in the sciences and engineering strengthen their professional networks as a method of improving their career success and satisfaction at the University. BU received the $750,000 grant as part of the NSF ADVANCE program, which helps universities develop systemic approaches to increasing representation and advancement of women faculty in science and engineering careers.

Science and engineering departments in U.S. universities continue to lose highly accomplished women to industry and to other non-academic careers, even as women represent an increasing percentage of those who earn doctoral degrees in STEM disciplines. BU is no exception. Although junior faculty women in the natural sciences are as likely to achieve tenure as their male counterparts, the rate of attrition from BU’s natural science departments over the last 10 years was 70 percent higher for females than males. Rates of attrition in engineering were also higher—about 50 percent—for females than for males. Despite hiring increases, the overall percentages of women in natural science and engineering departments at the University have remained flat over the past decade.

Moreover, research has shown that faculty women in the sciences and engineering often have networks ill-suited to professional development, collaboration, productivity, or high morale. Beyond their own departments, women faculty tend to have fewer ties than men of comparable rank, resulting in fewer channels through which they might receive information about new scientific discoveries, funding opportunities, or methods of research, or through which they might become known and valued in their fields. Within their own departments and universities, women often find themselves cut off from the timely flow of information through informal channels, thus missing out on the tacit knowledge that is essential to effective performance in the university setting.

“WIN: Women in Networks, Building Community and Gaining Voice” will adapt programs from other ADVANCE schools and develop new BU programs that will strengthen professional networks to enhance the success and satisfaction of women faculty. These programs will include pre-tenure mentoring, welcoming receptions for new STEM faculty, lunches with leaders, and inter-university and industry interactions. In addition, grant allocations will invigorate faculty networks in the science, technology, and engineering disciplines and support new collaborative research ventures.

“Analyzing the impact of social networks on improving the career success and satisfaction of women faculty is truly innovative,” explains Deborah Belle, CAS professor of psychology, who will serve as the principal investigator for the project. “While many ADVANCE programs are designed to enhance women’s networks through mentoring or network-building, virtually no studies have explicitly assessed how such programs affect women’s networks over time, or how network changes might relate to women’s career success and satisfaction over time. Nor have they addressed the impact on key benchmarks such as retention, promotion, and movement into positions of leadership. This longitudinal assessment really puts us at the forefront of this type of research.”

While the programs target leveling the playing field and improving the climate for female STEM faculty, they have been devised to generally enhance faculty and departmental networks within BU and beyond, explains Sheryl Grace, associate professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department, who will serve as co-principal investigator for the project. ”In fact, several of the programs will be open to both male and female STEM faculty,” she says. “It is often the case that improving conditions for a minority group leads to improved conditions for the system in general, and we believe that the WIN programs and research will have this broad impact.”

The centerpiece of the project is an analysis of the networks of faculty members in the College of Arts & Sciences, College of Engineering, and Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Services to determine the impact of WIN programs on faculty networks, and the potential connection between network changes over time and the retention and promotion of women faculty in science and engineering.

To evaluate the effectiveness of the networking programs in increasing the participation and advancement of women in science and engineering, BU will survey male and female faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences, College of Engineering, and Sargent College, both at the beginning and the end of the grant period. Participants will be asked about individuals who provide them with professional advice, help them balance work and personal issues, and serve as models for professional success, as well as those with whom they collaborate and socialize on campus. Investigators will then compare the data from the first and second surveys to learn about the ways academic networks grow and change over time.

“We will examine whether participation in ADVANCE programs is associated with changes in women’s networks and whether network characteristics are associated with work satisfaction, productivity, promotion, and movement to leadership positions,” says Belle. “Some events are likely to lead to new relationships that provide information and expert advice and result in new research collaborations, while others are more likely to build social and personal relationships, increasing women’s satisfaction with campus life.”

Belle notes that the study’s findings may have broader implications for non-academic workplaces and other academic disciplines. The grant will also fund more than 20 collaborative projects in a broad range of science, technology, engineering, and math fields, launching new research spearheaded by women. The research team will make the network analysis tools and techniques available to other researchers and institutions.

The overarching goal of the study is to create a rich community at BU, adds Belle. “Women in science and engineering tend to feel marginalized and isolated. We hope to build a professional community where people interact, are intellectually engaged, and feel more at home.”

Historically, Boston University has always admitted students of both genders and every race and religion. It was the first university in the country to admit women to graduate education, the first to award a doctorate to a woman, and the first in the world to establish a co-educational medical school.

About Boston University

Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 30,000 students, it is the fourth largest independent university in the United States. BU consists of 17 colleges and schools along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes that are central to the school’s research and teaching mission.

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