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Breaking Down Barriers: ADVANCE grant will help AU retain women and underrepresented STEM faculty

STEM leaders speak about how their efforts will move AU forward and their experiences as women and women of color who advanced in teaching and scholarship.

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A $1 million National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant is helping AU to retain and nurture women and members of underrepresented communities as part of its STEM faculty. 

Science and math-related STEM fields are growing at AU. The number of students who graduated with a bachelor’s of science in neuroscience more than doubled between 2015 and 2020, while students pursuing undergraduate degrees in biology grew by almost 25 percent to 155 from 2019 to 2020. And the master’s of science in data science, offered across several schools, is now one of the fastest growing programs. (For the purposes of the grant, STEM includes social and behavioral sciences in addition to physical and life sciences.) 

As part of the ADVANCE funding, AU will implement a multipronged strategy that includes providing research support; offering mentoring and development grants to women in STEM; building equity in tenure, promotion and reappointment; and hiring an assistant dean for faculty diversity and equity. 

Leading this important initiative are Monica Jackson, deputy provost and dean of faculty; Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, dean of the School of Education; Linda Aldoory, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; and Meg Bentley, director of STEM partnerships and innovation in CAS. Here, they speak about how their efforts will move AU forward and their experiences as women and women of color who advanced in teaching and scholarship.  

Q: Many colleges and universities face challenges in keeping women and people from historically marginalized communities as STEM faculty. What are the barriers faculty face? 
LA: It is difficult to pinpoint just a few barriers, as it is a constellation of factors that may prevent a faculty member from being promoted. They include service load, work-life constraints, discrimination, marginalization by senior faculty and administrators, and different criteria for success in tenure and promotion for different faculty members.

MB: At AU, and at many other higher ed institutions in the US, non-tenure track faculty (term faculty at AU) have higher proportions of BIPOC and women faculty than the tenure-track. So, it is especially important to understand the unique barriers term faculty face and to retain them so that students can benefit from their scientific expertise and their lived experiences.  

Q: One of the equity gaps in tenure and promotion is the undervaluing of “hidden labor” — or the contributions of faculty of color and faculty with marginalized identities, such as work that takes place outside of a university committee appointment. How will the grant help reward hidden labor? 

MJ: The grant will focus on our goals related to diversity, equity, and inclusion at the university and investigate the differences between term and tenure-line faculty. Our service to AU should not be hidden or invisible. The first phase of the grant allowed us to collect data to determine our current practices related to how DEI is valued in the tenure, promotion, and reappointment process. We found many discrepancies between units and will work to address these gaps. 

Q: Why is mentoring so critical to faculty retention? 

CHM: Mentoring is an effective strategy to promote career advancement, especially for those in underrepresented groups. It supports women scholars as they seek to advance in their careers within challenging contexts, ensuring that they have the knowledge and problem-solving skills to negotiate paths to success. We find that mentoring structures vary across the university. While several departments offer faculty a formalized mentoring program, many women faculty note they are unsure how to access mentoring at AU. We plan to launch a program that will offer an institution-wide, formal one-to-one mentoring approach combined with networking opportunities, similar to a program at University of Texas, El Paso. 

LA: Often, mentoring happens informally and is organic. When I was on a tenure line and a new assistant professor, I purposely invited a senior professor from my field to lunch once a semester and asked him about trends in the field and what research I should conduct. He was a very busy person and not at all against mentoring me, but he would not have had the time to reach out if I was not so bold. We want to make it easier for mentees to make those connections.   

Q: How will mentoring work? 

CHM: Should they want one, all new women STEM faculty will be assigned a woman mentor upon hiring. At the same time, all women faculty on campus will have networking opportunities twice a year to discuss topics such as work-life balance, promotion and tenure processes, and service. Networking opportunities will include university-wide lunches and programs. The assistant dean for faculty diversity and equity will develop and conduct online training for all STEM mentors. 

Q: What do you bring to the project from your lived or professional experiences? 

CHM and MJ: As women faculty of color in leadership positions, we both are committed to ensuring that all women—but in particular women of color in STEM—have equitable resources and experiences that will ensure their success. We have both experienced what it feels like to need mentoring, or more inclusive experiences, or experiences where we are seen and understood.    

LA: Prior to coming to AU, I worked on an ADVANCE grant at the University of Maryland for 11 years. There, I learned that mentorship is a critical component to successful advancement for women and BIPOC faculty. Also, having someone in academic leadership guiding the work, like Deputy Provost and Dean of Faculty Monica Jackson, increases its value and relevance for faculty.   

MB: I love learning alongside people from all over the world, of every age and from every lived experience. However, as a white woman scientist in higher education, I have experienced, observed and accepted that traditions in higher education and STEM have created and sustain significant barriers that prevent the full participation of all our faculty and students in this endeavor of learning and knowledge creation. As a term faculty member at AU, I can serve as a reminder that all of us are essential to getting the work of teaching and research production right.