Bridging the STEM gender gap

With the BrownTogether campaign, the University is creating more opportunity and a stronger sense of community for women faculty in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

In 1891, when women were first enrolled in the Women’s College of Brown University, their classes included mathematics and botany. But by 1915, scientifically-inclined twin sisters Janet and Lucy Bourn still had to petition to attend a chemistry class alongside male students. Fifteen years later, Magel C. Wilder, Class of 1919, was named assistant professor and became the first woman to teach biology to both men and women. 

Today, women make up more than 40% of Brown’s faculty and 52% of its total student enrollment. But as of the 2019-20 academic year, only 85 women held tenure-track faculty positions in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields — comprising just 22.7% of the total in those areas.  

In fact, a lack of women embarking on academic careers in STEM exists across the nation, prompting the U.S. Department of Education to identify women in STEM as historically underrepresented at the graduate and faculty levels. 

Brown, which has made meaningful progress over the last two decades in attracting women into its undergraduate STEM programs and The Warren Alpert Medical School, is now working to increase the number of women in the faculty pipeline for life and physical sciences as a part of its university-wide Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP). The plan, which launched in 2016, recognizes that “inequity prevents us from being a truly unified community” and sets forth concrete, achievable actions to make Brown more fully inclusive.

Increasing opportunities for women in STEM

The goals of Brown’s DIAP are intertwined with and supported by the major fundraising priorities of the BrownTogether campaign. Ensuring continued success in teaching, research, and service to society requires the University to employ more effective diversity strategies.

In particular, building strength in Brown’s STEM-related academic groups is a key step in expanding the University’s impact on large-scale societal concerns, such as climate change, cybersecurity, Alzheimer’s disease, and population health. 

To ensure that women can play a larger role in exploring viable solutions to these problems and mentoring students who will tackle tomorrow’s big questions, Brown’s STEM schools and departments are changing the way they recruit faculty and graduate students and cultivating more inclusive approaches to their work.

“The challenges that women in STEM fields face are similar to those faced by other professional or academic women,” says Deputy Dean of the Faculty and Associate Professor of Engineering Janet Blume. “But, they are exacerbated by the relatively small numbers of women in these fields. With the small numbers, the culture in these disciplines may be lagging in terms of the structures, climate issues, and reward systems that affect women.

“In order to attract more women to Brown in these areas, we have to be mindful of the importance of diversity, including — but not limited to— gender diversity, in every step of the process. We also have to pay attention to the needs of dual-career families, issues like child care, and community building as well.”

At the request of President Christina H. Paxson, Blume is working to build the Women in the Physical Sciences Network, which will provide support for both established and junior faculty, postdoctoral associates, graduate students, and undergraduates. In addition, the University has created the Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowships to help bring promising early-career scholars from underrepresented groups into the Brown community and create a pathway to the faculty ranks.

While these and other targeted strategies have helped improve the ratio of women to men in STEM graduate programs and undergraduate concentrations, the intense competition for top-notch women faculty in these areas has proven to be an obstacle for many schools, including Brown.

“Even though the majority of Ph.D. candidates in life and medical sciences are now women (currently estimated at 58%), that representation does not extend to entry faculty positions,” says Diane Lipscombe, the Reliance Dhirubhai Ambani Director of Brown’s Robert J. and Nancy D. Carney Institute for Brain Science. “The disproportionate loss of women from scientific research is important to address so that we can draw from the greatest pool of talented scientists.”

Linda Abriola, who was named the Joan Wernig and E. Paul Sorensen Professor of Engineering at Brown this year, says there also aren’t enough women candidates to go around at the senior level. Abriola previously served as the inaugural dean of the Tufts University School of Engineering, where she implemented a number of diversity initiatives. 

“The professoriate is not always seen as family friendly,” she says. “But the climate of a particular school makes a big difference. If women can feel comfortable there, you can bring in more. Then it starts to snowball.” 

Recruiting the best with endowed professorships

Both Abriola and Yue Qi, the Joan Wernig Sorensen Professor of Engineering, were recruited to positions endowed by the Sorensen family with the goal of expanding the range of expertise at the School of Engineering. 

“It is a great honor to be appointed as the inaugural holder of this chair,” Qi says. “The professorship provides a real mark of distinction for me as a scholar and researcher, and it helps me attract the most talented students to Brown.”

Abriola agrees. “It really clinched the deal for me. The fact that there was a chair for me at an institution of Brown’s caliber made me feel wanted and welcomed.”

As of February 1, 2021, the University has raised funding for more than 100 endowed faculty positions during the BrownTogether campaign. These positions have helped augment both the diversity and the expertise in high-impact areas of study. Abriola’s specialty, environmental engineering, is an area that Brown is seeking to expand to potentially partner with environmental scientists in other disciplines across campus. The Carney Institute and The Warren Alpert Medical School have also used new endowed positions to recruit and retain women faculty members with expertise in the neurobiology of brain cells and circuits, clinical stroke research, and the underpinnings of multiple sclerosis.  

“Innovation and real-world solutions are greatly enhanced by diverse, multidisciplinary teams of scientists in collaborative communities,” says Lipscombe. “Endowed professorships are incredibly important to our recruitment efforts. It's a fabulous way to acknowledge faculty achievements, but it’s also a distinction that continues to be visible beyond Brown.”

In the end, Brown’s efforts to attract more women into faculty positions in STEM run parallel to the nation’s efforts to inspire more women to pursue study in these fields. Representation matters — in classrooms and laboratories — and the University will benefit from the connections it builds among women at all career levels.

“None of these professions are male or female,” says Abriola. “Women students haven’t always seen successful role models in this area. I want to work with them to let them know there are many models of success in engineering. And the more Brown can provide a sense of community, the more successful women here will be.”