Institutional Transformation: Environments Can Help or Hinder Success of Women in Academia

"Environments do not necessarily operate uniformly or neutrally," said Mary Frank Fox, NSF ADVANCE professor of sociology at Georgia Tech and co-director of its Center for the Study of Women, Science & Technology. "The same setting can be experienced differently by individuals or groups and be unevenly helpful in their success -- something that is especially consequential in science and engineering."

On February 13, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Seattle, Fox discussed institutional barriers that impede women's progress in academia and how Georgia Tech's ADVANCE initiative is improving the climate for women faculty.

Launched by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2001, ADVANCE is geared to increase women's participation in academic science and engineering careers. Among eighteen universities to win funding, Georgia Tech has received $3.7 million from NSF to develop policies and best practices that advance women faculty, and Fox serves as co-principal investigator on the project.

One hallmark of Georgia Tech's NSF ADVANCE program is its research-driven approach to institutional transformation, critical to determining how environments shape positive or negative outcomes. "Just as organizations are structured for outcomes, they can be re-structured for greater equity and better use of talent of underrepresented groups," said Fox.

As part of the NSF ADVANCE initiative, Fox surveyed Georgia Tech faculty during the 2002-03 academic year to document their perceptions and experiences in four areas: research and teaching, work environments, evaluation processes, and family and household scenarios.

A few highlights of Fox's survey:

-- Men (30 percent) are more likely than women (13 percent) to speak to colleagues about their research on a daily basis.

-- Although a majority of faculty members have colleagues in their home units working on similar research, men report greater "willingness" of colleagues to collaborate with them.

-- Men are more likely to characterize their home units as "exciting" or "helpful."

"The survey findings show areas in which women and men converge and diverge and areas in which they may experience the same work setting differently," Fox explained. "This reflects the influence of institutional settings."

And that can have important consequences. "Ease of collaboration is particularly important in science and engineering where work revolves around the cooperation of people in groups," Fox explained. "Research is a social process of communication, interaction and exchange. These factors, in turn, influence productivity and success in science."

To determine more specifics about how the academic environment can help women, Fox is following up with one-on-one interviews with survey participants. She's also conducting a faculty survey at eight other academic institutions to see how experiences compare among faculty.

Another key aspect of women's advancement in academia is equitable evaluations. As part of its NSF ADVANCE program, Georgia Tech has created a committee to study its policies and procedures for tenure and promotion.

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