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Science & Tech

Splitting Atoms, Breaking Barriers

WISE conference seeks to advance women in science and engineering

Abigail Stewart returned to BU with strategies on how to change the system so women can advance in science and engineering. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Abigail Stewart returned to BU with a message and a formula for change. Stewart, a former BU faculty member and now the Sandra Schwarz Tangri Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, was back at the University on April 6 to recount her efforts to advance women faculty members in science and engineering at her current place of employment.

Stewart’s talk, sponsored by Boston University Women in Science and Engineering (BU WISE), reported on a change effort that was deemed necessary at Michigan after both the MIT 9 — nine institutions that in 2001 released a statement calling attention to the barriers to women scientists and engineers in academia — and the National Science Foundation concluded that programs designed to encourage girls to enter the fields of science and engineering had done virtually nothing to change the numbers.

More recently, in fall 2006, the Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine released a study showing that despite a significant presence of female graduate students in science and engineering, only 15.4 percent of the full professors in the social and behavioral sciences and 14.8 percent in the life sciences are women. The study, Beyond Bias and Barriers, concluded that institutional prejudices and roadblocks are impeding women’s academic advancement in these fields. That same year at BU, according to BU WISE, women made up 10.3 percent of tenure track faculty in engineering and 17.0 percent of tenure track faculty in the sciences (including psychology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, computer science, astronomy, biology, geography, earth sciences, and cognitive and neural systems).

BU WISE believes that bringing speakers like Stewart to campus will help reinforce the importance of the National Academies report and encourage acceptance of its findings. Stewart told her audience that productive discussions about the problem require two things: a belief that change is necessary, and continued and intense focus on that change. 

At the University of Michigan, she said, efforts focused on four major areas: techniques used to recruit women faculty, the establishment of a more benign climate for women and men alike, a review of current policies and practices, and the creation of a network for women scientists and engineers.

“The most important thing was that we were going to change the institution,” said Stewart. “We were no longer going to talk about fixing the women.”

And change the institution they did. The number of women faculty in engineering and science increased from 13 percent to 17 percent, the number of committees chaired by women increased from none to 6 of 25 at the three major colleges, the number of women recruited by the university tripled, and women faculty reported a less sexist environment and a more positive climate.

Stewart offered several suggestions to help BU continue a dialogue on advancing women faculty. The most important thing, she said, is the creation of a network of women scientists and engineers who will advocate on their own behalf. She also stressed collaboration with men, the inclusion of women in discussions on policy changes, and the collection and evaluation of solid data on science and engineering departments.

BU WISE plans to gather its own data on the experiences of women and men in the sciences and engineering, to administer a “climate” survey, and to continue to bring speakers like Stewart to campus.

Deborah Belle, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of psychology and the co-chair of BU WISE, described the organization, which was started in 2004, as “young and evolving. In developing a stronger sense of community and in sharing our experiences with others,” she said, “we will become more able to advocate for needed changes.”

For more information on BU WISE, visit www.bu.edu/wise.

Nicole Laskowski can be reached at nicolel@bu.edu.