How To Reach C&ENACS Membership Number


September 23, 2002
Volume 80, Number 38
CENEAR 80 38 pp. 106-108
ISSN 0009-2347

Symposium spotlights departments with positive environments for women


Many chemistry departments still have a long way to go until they have a significant percentage of women on their faculties. As listed in the scorecard on page 110, women hold only 12% of the chemistry faculty positions at the nation's top research universities. Despite that dismal number, departments in a variety of schools--from the top 50 chemistry departments to predominantly undergraduate institutions--have made significant strides toward welcoming women into their ranks. Women from five departments representing a range of schools spoke at a symposium presented by the Division of Professional Relations at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Boston last month.

The speakers discussed what factors contribute to creating a successful environment for women. Several speakers pointed out that "numbers matter" and that it's important to achieve a "critical mass" of women. Carol T. Christ, president of Smith College, Northampton, Mass., estimates that the critical mass is somewhere between a quarter and a third of the faculty. "It's easy for women in smaller proportions to feel isolated, different, or exceptional," she said.

Recruitment is a major issue, and finding appropriate candidates means going beyond advertising in the usual media. Kristin Bowman-James, chemistry professor at the University of Kansas, recommended "scouting out prospects at professional meetings." Another tactic is to send letters to mentors who have large numbers of women in their research groups. Such methods can also help find minority candidates, she said.

Christ noted that the search for new faculty members must be wide, open, and careful. While Christ was provost at the University of California, Berkeley, the chemistry department "frequently requested search waivers, in order to pursue a senior scientist whom it had already identified as the most outstanding person in the subfield in which it" had an opening, she said. In contrast, searching at the junior faculty level leads to a more diverse candidate pool, she said.

IN GOOD COMPANY Among the top 50 chemistry departments, the University of Kansas now has the highest percentage of women professors, with seven chemistry professors and two courtesy professors from other departments. They are (back row, from left) Helena C. Malinakova, Heather Desaire, Janet Bond-Robinson, (middle row, from left) Bowman-James, K. Barbara Schowen, Cynthia K. Larive, (front row, from left) Gunda I. Georg (medicinal chemistry), Susan Lunte (pharmaceutical chemistry), and Cindy L. Berrie.

MENTORING is an important part of creating a supportive environment for all faculty members, several speakers noted. In addition to providing advice, mentors should be prepared to be advocates, Bowman-James said. They should be willing to argue in support of the junior faculty member for space, funding, and students. In addition, effective mentors should be well established, with contacts to whom they can introduce the young faculty member.

Laura K. Lee, a chemistry professor at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, told C&EN that "new faculty often benefit by having different mentors for different areas of responsibility." However, mentoring "can be a tough issue because it is voluntary on the part of the mentor," and such activities don't count toward tenure.

Creating a supportive environment requires the backing of department leaders. "You need a chair who is committed to women's success, who is willing to acknowledge a problem if there is one, and who understands his or her responsibility in helping develop colleagues' careers," Christ said. "I've often been surprised at the difference that the choice of a chair can make, in and of itself, in changing the climate and culture of a department."

Lisa F. Szczepura and Marjorie A. Jones, professors at Illinois State University, pointed out that the university community at all levels can contribute to a positive environment. For instance, the administration can provide financial incentives to hire women, something that Illinois State did in the 1980s. The department chairman follows up by ensuring that start-up contracts are upheld, assigning reasonable teaching and service loads, and putting women in positions of authority on committees. Finally, colleagues contribute by making women feel included, both professionally and socially. Now, five out of 20 faculty members at Illinois State are women.

At the symposium, Christ, formerly provost at UC Berkeley, discussed both Berkeley and Smith College. A former English professor, Christ became executive vice chancellor and provost at Berkeley in 1994, a position in which she had responsibility for the College of Chemistry.

At that time, she "would never have considered showcasing the department of chemistry as an academic department with a positive environment for women," she told the audience. In her first year in office, she received three complaints of gender bias from women chemistry faculty. Those women were three of the four women on a faculty of about 60. The complaints concerned equity in salary, laboratory space, and merit advancement.

The similar timing of the three complaints "suggested that the department had a chilly climate for women, one that did not encourage them to thrive," Christ said. She believes that several factors combined to create that atmosphere, including the small number of women in the department, a "hiring culture" in which the department looked for senior scientists instead of junior-level candidates, and the isolation of the department in a separate College of Chemistry.

The Berkeley chemistry department "began to create a better climate for women when a faculty member [Paul Bartlett] became chair who acknowledged that there was a problem and was committed to fixing it," Christ said. The number of women has increased, and women now fill leadership positions in the department, including the department chairman and two vice chairmen.

Surprisingly, even Smith College--a liberal arts college for women--has a "problematic history" of women in its chemistry department. According to Christ, more than 40 years have passed without a woman being tenured. However, that statistic should change soon, she said. The department's eight faculty members include six assistant professors, five of whom are women.

Two major research universities at which the chemistry departments have succeeded in creating a positive environment for women are Rutgers University and the University of Kansas. At both schools, more than 25% of the faculty are women.

The history of Rutgers helped foster its supportive environment, chemistry professor Martha Greenblatt told the audience. Rutgers' New Brunswick campus used to be a loose collection of colleges with separate faculties, including Douglass College for women. Greenblatt joined Rutgers via the faculty of University College in 1974. The New Brunswick faculties were reorganized into a single Faculty of Arts & Sciences in 1980. 8038ed1

THE ENVIRONMENT in the Douglass chemistry department carried over after the colleges were reorganized, Greenblatt said. At that point, Douglass already had three female faculty members, and the male faculty member "responsible for hiring and nurturing women came from Douglass," Greenblatt said. Rutgers made an all-out effort to hire every outstanding female candidate and also makes counteroffers to retain female faculty who receive offers from other universities, she said. Currently, 10 women make up just over a quarter of the faculty.

The strong support for women starting out at Rutgers actually translates into strong support for all junior faculty members, Greenblatt said. They teach just one course per year, receive departmental support for all graduate students in their group until they are tenured, and are assigned a mentor. In addition, the department is supportive of faculty with young children, she said.

Kansas had its first female chemistry faculty member as early as 1921, Bowman-James told the audience. However, the department had no female faculty members from the mid-1940s until Bowman-James joined in 1975. The number of female faculty members has gradually increased since then. Bowman-James helped the process along. When she was the chairman of the department, half of the faculty members hired were women.

Non-Ph.D.-granting institutions were also represented at the symposium. For example, Lock Haven is a primarily undergraduate institution with close to 4,000 students. The chemistry department has seven faculty members, four of whom are women, according to Lee. The department participates in four programs, including chemistry, secondary education with an emphasis in chemistry, a B.A. in natural sciences, and a joint chemistry/biology degree.

The small size of Lock Haven's chemistry department means that each faculty member is the only one in his or her subdiscipline. Therefore, they don't compete against one another--only against a set of standards. The expectation is always that faculty do the best job they can.

Students are the first priority at Lock Haven, and research counts for more if it includes undergraduates on the team, Lee said. Publishing in a less well-known journal with student coauthors is viewed more favorably than publishing alone in a top-flight journal.

In one area of importance to women, Lock Haven has yet to be tested. Because Lee is the only faculty member with young children, the department is "just starting to deal with work/life issues," she said.

C&EN's academic scorecard indicates that there's still plenty of room for improvement, but the departments highlighted at the Boston meeting are proof that it is possible to create an academic environment where women can thrive.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

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