The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has launched a program to recruit and support women faculty throughout its sciences and health affairs divisions.
The program, called Working on Women in Science (WOWS), is designed to foster the careers of women in science through financial support, public recognition, leadership training, mentoring and networking.
The program has been endorsed by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Office of the Provost and all of the schools having female science faculty, including the College of Arts and Sciences and the schools of dentistry, information and library sciences, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and public health.
More than $110,000 has been committed so far by UNC-Chapel Hill’s science and health divisions to support the following initiatives:
- WOWS Scholars: salary supplements to five women scientists in the College of Arts and Sciences and the schools of medicine and dentistry. WOWS scholars will explore new ways to support the advancement of women scientists at UNC-Chapel Hill; they also will serve on search committees that recruit new faculty in the sciences.
- Support temporary instructional and administrative personnel to replace women on leave for family responsibilities.
- Lectures by visiting scholars, dramatic performances and other special events.
- Women’s leadership luncheons and other networking and training opportunities.
The number of women in faculty positions in the sciences nationwide lags well behind the proportion of undergraduate and graduate degrees granted to women, according to studies by the National Science Foundation and others.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, women comprise about 60 percent of all undergraduates and 31 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty, but they make up only about 23 percent of such faculty in the sciences (20 percent in the natural, mathematical and behavioral sciences and 27 percent in medicine).
“This is a national problem and UNC should be part of the solution,” said Dr. Etta Pisano, vice dean for academic affairs at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine, Kenan professor of radiology and biomedical engineering and director of the UNC-Chapel Hill Biomedical Research Imaging Center. “We want to support a professional climate at UNC to ensure that women get promoted and succeed at the same rate as male faculty. This will attract to our campus more women leaders in the sciences and clinical health, and will provide role models for future generations.”
Studies indicate that U.S. women earn half the bachelor’s degrees awarded in science and engineering and about 37 percent of the doctoral degrees, but they constitute only about 28 percent of science and engineering faculty in four-year colleges and universities. When one examines the percentages of women scientists in higher positions, the figure drops precipitously, with fewer than 15 percent of full professors in the life sciences and single-digit percentages across the physical sciences. Women from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds are even rarer at all levels in the nation’s leading science and engineering departments.
A blue-ribbon report last year from the National Academies examined the status of women in senior academic science and engineering positions nationwide. It noted that women are paid less, promoted more slowly, bypassed for honors and subjected to implicit gender bias from both their male and female colleagues.
WOWS grew from an interdisciplinary grant proposal led by Laurie McNeil, Ph.D. professor and chair of the department of physics and astronomy in UNC-Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences.
“In order to be the best public university in the nation, UNC must draw from the largest talent pool possible in hiring outstanding faculty members and assuring their success,” said McNeil. “This requires that we use the best practices in hiring and promotion, provide a climate that fosters professional growth, advance women to positions of leadership, and provide role models for young female scientists. The WOWS program will assist us in all of these.”
While UNC-Chapel Hill continues to seek external funding for the initiative, Pisano has been leading an effort to raise funds from departments and programs across the university.
“It’s absolutely critical that we encourage and support women in the sciences across the UNC campus,” said Holden Thorp, Ph.D., Kenan professor of chemistry and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “We need more women at the highest levels of scientific research to contribute their knowledge to solving critical problems and to provide role models to encourage more young women to go into the sciences. We should be as ambitious about addressing this challenge as we are in trying to discover scientific solutions to other public problems.”