VCU awarded grant for recruitment, retention of women in STEM

Illustration by Steck Von.

VCU will recruit more STEM female faculty members following the awarding of a $2.99 million grant.

Accorded by the National Science Foundation, the “Overcoming Immunity to Change: ADVANCE IT VCU” grant plans to raise participation and advancement of women in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

“The disproportionate representation of women in these important and wide-reaching fields results in male-dominated processes, programs and politics,” said Montserrat Fuentes, Dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Leading the ADVANCE IT VCU grant, Fuentes said more women teaching in these fields will provide role models and mentors to young women with interests in STEM. A more diverse representation in science and engineering careers, Fuentes said, will foster “creativity, innovation and competitiveness.”

In 2015, women filled 47 percent of U.S. jobs, but held less than a quarter of jobs in STEM, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The largest disparity for women in STEM field exists in engineering. According to data collected by NSF, from 1993 to 2010, the percentage of female engineers in the workforce only increased four percent, compared to increases of nearly 20 percent in other fields such as biological, agricultural and environmental life sciences.

“Why women are lacking in STEM field is a conundrum,” said Barbara Boyan, Dean of the College of Engineering. “In my generation, we were actively discouraged.  Over the past few decades, the importance of having diverse perspectives in order to solve difficult problems has led to the recognition that women have a valuable point of view that should be heard.”

When it comes to engaging faculty in science, math, engineering and technology, VCU exceeds the national mark. Thirty-nine percent of VCU STEM faculty are women — four percent of which are minority women — compared to the national average of 33 percent of female STEM faculty members, with only three percent being minority women.

“To diversify STEM we first need to overcome the immunity to change,” Fuentes said. “(The grant) will transform VCU in ways that will effectively and systematically diversify its faculty.”

While VCU boasts above-average numbers for female STEM faculty members, ADVANCE IT VCU will boost those numbers by recruiting, retaining and advancing diverse female faculty. This grant follows a simultaneous increase in women pursuing STEM programs at VCU. For the 2017-18 academic year, women held a majority of seats in the biomedical engineering program. Women were highly represented in chemical and life sciences engineering, as well.

“When women are not involved in engineering and science, the needs, experiences, desires that are unique to women may easily be overlooked,” Fuentes said. “With a more diverse STEM representation, scientific and technological products and solutions will be better designed to represent all users, and the direction of science and scientific inquiry will be guided by a broader array of experiences.”

Through the NSF grant, Fuentes said VCU plans to facilitate change by implementing new recruitment processes that extend a more diverse, representative staff, improve promotion and tenure policies and “facilitate professional opportunities for minority women.

Saffeya Ahmed, Copy Editor

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