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CoE partners with campus colleagues to improve environment for women faculty members

A new NSF grant aims to increase the number of STEM faculty members such as CoE Associate Professor Marjorie Skubic, shown here working with Charlie Huggard, a computer science graduate student, to configure a computer server. Photo by Vicki Hodder

National concern has been focused in recent years on America’s shrinking lead in science and technology.

With the aid of a three–year National Science Foundation grant totaling nearly $500,000, the University of Missouri–Columbia College of Engineering is joining an intercollegiate effort to help bolster the educational foundation in those fields by improving the campus environment for women faculty members. Along with the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and the College of Arts and Science, the engineering college is working to create a three–pronged program to erode barriers that prevent female science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) faculty members from attaining leadership positions.

If successful, the program ultimately will strengthen MU’s academic performance while improving the campus environment for all faculty members, said Jackie Litt, a sociology and women’s and gender studies associate professor serving as director of MU’s women’s and gender studies program who will lead the intercollegiate program.

“Excellence and diversity go hand–in–hand,” Litt said.

Statistical surveys show the extent to which the female talent pool remains untapped in these areas.

Nationally, women make up 10.6 percent of the tenured faculty members working in ABET–accredited engineering colleges, according to the American Society for Engineering Education’s “Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges, 2005 edition.” At the MU College of Engineering, about six percent of tenured faculty members are women.

Women made up roughly 17 percent of MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and College of Arts and Science tenured faculty members as of 2004, according to the MU grant proposal.

MU leaders hope to retain and help promote female STEM faculty members by adapting a trio of programs focusing on gender equity already in place at the University of Michigan and New Mexico State University. Mizzou’s NSF–backed gender equity programs are scheduled to kick off next January.

Plans call for establishing a mentorship program intended to offset a sense of intellectual and social isolation frequently cited by senior women faculty members. A committee comprising full professors, who will undergo education and training as they work, will be formed to determine the best means of retaining and advancing women faculty members, and an interactive theater program designed to highlight unconscious biases that women face will be developed.

“I think putting some of these programs in place will make a big difference,” said Marjorie Skubic, an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering and computer science who is helping launch the new programs.

Mizzou’s grant participants see the programs as an opportunity to strengthen the university as a whole.

“It will benefit all of the three colleges involved, and it will benefit women as well as men,” Litt said. “This really will improve the culture for all faculty.”

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