Toward a More Inclusive STEM Workplace
In an article published in Science, UA professor Beth Mitchneck makes recommendations for increasing the representation and advancement of female professors in STEM fields.

By Lori Harwood, UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
April 7, 2016

The broad participation of women from all backgrounds in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields cannot happen until institutions are transformed, according to a new Policy Perspectives article co-authored by University of Arizona professor Beth Mitchneck and published in Science.

Mitchneck, a professor in the UA School of Geography and Development, is lead author on "A Recipe for Change: Creating a More Inclusive Academy," published on Friday.

The goals of the article, on gender equity and institutional transformation, are to encourage structural changes to university work environments to improve the representation of female professors in STEM, to advance science and to create a more inclusive workplace within and outside academia where everyone can be successful.

With co-authors Jessi Smith, professor of psychology at Montana State University, and Melissa Latimer, professor of sociology at West Virginia University, Mitchneck presents a six-part plan organized under the headings of: learn the social science research; leaders must understand the context and be accountable for diversity and inclusion; seek external catalyzing resources; focus at the department level; collect and publicly share data; and policy change is critical.

Mitchneck said challenges for female academics exist in all disciplines but are particularly pronounced in STEM fields, which are dogged by "scientists are men" stereotypes and often hold a more traditional disciplinary culture, including expectations on which journals to publish in and how much time to spend in the lab.

Mitchneck has extensive experience with this topic.

In 2006, she co-wrote and was co-principal investigator of a five-year, $3.3 million ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Grant awarded to the UA from the National Science Foundation aimed at increasing the participation and advancement of women in science and engineering careers. Between 2012 and 2014, Mitchneck was the lead program director of ADVANCE for the NSF.

In many STEM fields, the low number of female professors cannot be attributed to a shortage of female graduate students. Mitchneck cites the field of biology, where more women than men are earning doctorates — yet women comprised 36 percent of assistant professors and only 27 percent of tenure candidates in a 2010 study by the U.S. National Research Council.

The NSF reports that women comprise only 21 percent of full professors in science fields and 5 percent of full professors in engineering despite earning about half the doctorates in science and engineering in the nation.

Mitchneck said the problem does not stem from these graduates not being hired as assistant professors, but is related to the need for changes in the academic workplace.

"There are a lot of different incentives for universities to hire women or minorities, but then they haven't changed the conditions under which they work," Mitchneck said. "And that becomes the fundamental problem."

Subtle biases, some more hidden than others, permeate the system. This is why the authors recommend that the campus community read the relevant social science research for an "understanding of the myriad ways in which bias contributes to stereotype threat, belonging uncertainty, work-life imbalance and a host of other negative outcomes."

Mitchneck recalled a male professor from a STEM field complaining that a female colleague was not committed to her science because she often left the office at 3 p.m. Mitchneck, who had her own history of leaving the office early to pick up her children from school and then working at home until 11 p.m., questioned the man's underlying assumption that this woman was not being productive because she was not physically in the office or lab. This assumption of being less committed once you have children does not fall equally on male professors, Mitchneck asserted.

Also, in departments and committees, female professors often are allocated the "housekeeping" work, time-intensive tasks that do little in the way of advancing the professors' careers, Mitchneck said.

Subtle bias also comes from students, who are more likely to call female professors by their first name and question their expertise, Mitchneck said. This bias from students, which might seem less pernicious than bias from those in power positions, also can have negative consequences.

"There is a lot of evidence that shows that women and minority faculty get lower teaching evaluations than white men," Mitchneck said. "And many universities use teaching evaluations when deciding salary raises and promotions."

The authors recommend a re-evaluation of the fairness of the promotion and tenure process, or P&T.

"P&T policies as they currently stand are inflexible and are often reduced to a mathematical formula of publications, external funding and impact factors. This reductionist evaluation can hurt women faculty, who, for example, are often drawn to collaborative teams and interdisciplinary research," Mitchneck said.

Mitchneck notes that although team-based science is important for innovation, it takes longer to complete and may result in fewer publications and solo-author papers.

The importance of gender equity in higher education does not end at the institution's walls, Mitchneck emphasized. Science suffers because of the underrepresentation and slow advancement of women scientists and engineers. Research shows that creativity and innovation in teams is bolstered by introducing various perspectives and that women and minorities investigate topics that otherwise would not have been studied.

"If we're excluding half the population from being full partners in the scientific enterprise, then we as a society lose out," Mitchneck said.

In the Science article, Mitchneck and her co-authors focus on women professors in STEM fields but say their plan has implications for other groups: "Changes that bring about inclusion for one group, we argue, can have far-reaching benefits for everyone."

Nor is their advice meant only for universities.

"As a society, we are dealing with these types of issues not only in higher education, but also in the corporate world and in scientific industries," Mitchneck said. "This a phenomenal opportunity for us to work together to solve these problems that are really important for society at large and for the coming generation.

"I know I want my daughters to come into a workforce that is more equitable for them than it is now."

Extra info

Beth Mitchneck is a 2015-2016 Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

Recent op-eds include:

"Not-So-Rosy Reality of Campus Race Relations"

U.S. News, 3/28/16

"Student and Faculty Diversity Movements — Apart and Together"

The Huffington Post, 2/15/16

"Inside Out: How to Help Internally Displaced Refugees"

Foreign Affairs, 1/22/15


Resources for the media

Beth Mitchneck

UA School of Geography and Development