Women STEM Out: Clarkson University expanding programming in science, technology, engineering and math

Photo provided by Clarkson University

BY: Tom Graser
It was recognized, long ago, that girls and young women were not pursuing an education in what came to be known as STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — in the same number as boys and young men. 

    Over the years significant effort was made to open opportunities to close that particular gender gap. 

    “These efforts were more or less successful. However, as we look at gender diversity in graduate programs and then to the faculty and up to higher education administration, the representation of women plummets,” Clarkson Provost Robyn Hannigan told NNY Business magazine. 

    With that in mind, Clarkson University put together a five-member team to pursue a National Science Foundation  STEM Leadership, Equity and Advancement of Faculty grant.  

    The team consisted of  Ms. Hannigan; Stephanie Schuckers, director of the Center for Identification Technology Research; William Jemison, dean of the Wallace H. Coulter School of Engineering; Laura Ettinger, an associate history professor; and Jennifer Ball, chief inclusion officer. 

    In July, the university learned that it had been awarded $999,934 from the NSF to study the issue at Clarkson and to put in place programs and projects to change the trajectory of women pursuing STEM careers in higher education and in business.  

    “This grant is a significant grant because they want you to make significant changes in your organization,” Ms. Ball said. “What this allows us to do is to step back and look at the way we structure ourselves and ask ‘is this working to actually bring in diverse talent?’ And, is it set up in such a way that it is unintentionally making it harder for certain people to work within these fields and industries.” 

    In higher education, Ms. Ball said many of the structures and systems were set up long ago, before people were concerned with things like work/life balance or family and child care.  

    But, it is more than just old-fashioned gender roles, Ms. Ball said.  

    “We weren’t thinking about how different cultural and social identity experiences might make you communicate differently or figure things out differently,” she said.  

    Those differences if utilized, Ms. Ball said, make for a more creative, more innovative workforce. 

    “Are there points in the process of recruiting individuals into these faculty positions, setting them up in their fields in terms of research and laboratories, getting them mentors and asking how are we  help them with the progression of their careers that maybe weren’t being focused on before or were happening through informal networks that they may not have been a part of.” 

    The focus on these issues is not new, Ms. Ball said, but too often previous efforts had looked at how do you change the individual rather than changing the institution. 

    “It’s an evolution,” Ms. Shuckers said. “I don’t think higher education is any different than the wider world.” 

    The NSF grant, while focused on women faculty, goes further and takes into consideration other aspects of life, such as cultural and social identities Ms. Shuckers said.  

    “What I think is exciting about this,” she said, “is that while the grant itself is focused on women faculty, it is going to impact all faculty” 

    Changing the culture for the better by providing better opportunities for faculty is part of the grant, Ms Shuckers said,  but  by also including programs like training campus leadership and the inspection of policies and practices, it will benefit all faculty. 

    And, it is not just faculty that will potentially benefit from the changes the grant might foster.  

    While the grant is focused, Ms. Ball said with what happens to faculty after they arrive on campus and how the university can provide pathways to success, it indirectly impacts how they get to campus.  

    “There is certainly a need to address the pipeline,” Ms. Ball said. “Because improving the diversity and quality of the faculty and administration will trickle down to the experience our students have.” 

    Universities and other organizations have been working on improving diversity for some time but, Ms. Shuckers said, the work on diversity would end after a hire was made.  

    “We were getting women and other under-represented groups in and then they were leaking out,” Ms. Shucker said. “So, how do we make an inclusive environment? How do they know they belong? Do we make it easy or hard?’ 

    “With the National Science Foundation’s award to advance STEM LEAF and our commitment to impacting positive change, Clarkson is well poised to drive innovation in the higher education community through an inclusive experience that shows our appreciation of differences that inform and enrich our lives,” Clarkson University President Anthony G. Collins said when the award was announced.  

    “We can make changes more quickly than a lot of other institutions,” Ms. Ball said. “Because we are smaller we have a more closely knit faculty and we can work together more quickly to make changes.” 

    That said, the university intends to move intentionally and take its time in designing programs.  

    “If you want this to fail you roll it out overnight in a memo and you say we’re going to do it this way and that’s it,” Ms. Ball said. “You have to engage your community and that’s why this is a three-year grant.” 

    The university will take the time to build support and have conversations on campus and seek out places where the institution can become more flexible to meet more peoples’ needs, she said. 

    Ms. Hannigan said funds also will be used to support professional development of academic leaders and STEM women faculty in the development of inclusive leadership skills and to support STEM women faculty through training in self-advocacy, negotiation strategies and other topic areas. 

    The grant also will fund oral history interviews with Clarkson STEM women faculty. The oral history research project is designed to produce new information about women STEM faculty, especially at small technological institutions.  

    One of the goals is for the work done at Clarkson to spread.  

    “Having a happier, more diverse faculty will impact our students,” Ms. Shuckers said. “I can remember when I was an undergraduate in electrical engineering there was zero female faculty. When they hired their first female faculty member I set up a meeting to talk with her. I had nothing to say to her other than to ask,’can I talk to you?’” 

    Building a more diverse faculty that can attract more diverse students is a benefit beyond the campus, Ms. Shuckers said.  

“That will help the companies around us. Because if we can have a more diverse student population, that’s a more diverse workforce that companies can hire who are struggling with the same thing in the STEM disciplines.” 

    The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950. With an annual budget of $8.1 billion it is the funding source for approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. In many fields such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing. 

    Clarkson University is a private research university with its main campus located in Potsdam, and additional graduate program and research facilities in New York State’s Capital Region and Beacon. It was founded in 1896 and has an enrollment of about 4,300 students.