Maria Gartstein found herself in an unfamiliar position when she reached the level of associate professor in 2008.

“I was unsure of what to do next,” Gartstein said. “I always had a pretty good sense of what it would take to get tenure but once I got it I realized I hadn’t really thought beyond that.”

Gartstein’s dilemma was and still is a common occurrence in academia.  Research shows the associate professor rut, where faculty linger at a mid-rank position for years and sometimes indefinitely, is not only very real but also disproportionally affects women, particularly in STEM fields.

The National Science Foundation reports that women comprise only 21 percent of full professors in science fields and 5 percent of full professors in engineering despite earning about half the doctorates in science and engineering in the nation.

Gartstein was nevertheless able to beat the trend.

She is now a full professor in the WSU Department of Psychology and her research on infant development is being featured in an upcoming Netflix documentary.

She said one of the keys to her success was participating in the WSU External Mentor Program, an experience so worthwhile she’s building on its approach with the help of a new $1.2 million NSF grant supporting education leadership development for women in STEM.

The External Mentor Program connects WSU female faculty members with off-campus academic leaders. It was created with support from the NSF in 2008 as part of WSU ADVANCE, an initiative designed to promote institutional transformation, increasing diversity in the highest ranks of STEM at WSU.

Gartstein joined the External Mentor Program because she realized the National Institutes of Health were no longer going to fund her behavioral research with infants unless she started using biomarkers and examining the biological underpinnings of temperament to augment her work.

She asked Martha Ann Bell, professor of psychology at Virginia Tech University, for guidance. Bell taught Gartstein how to use electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings to integrate brain activity data into her lab’s analyses and provided detailed advice on how to advance up the career ladder. The External Mentor program also made it possible for Bell to visit Gartstein in Pullman and work with her and her students.

The two women have since gone on to publish numerous papers together and are currently working on a large grant proposal.

“Working with my mentor helped me pivot my program of research,” Gartstein said. “Perhaps more importantly, it also helped me visualize exactly what I needed to do in order to become a leader in my field.”

Over the course of five years, around 40 women participated in the first iteration of the External Mentor Program. Recent studies gauging the program’s effectiveness showed working with a mentor translated into both increased research productivity and overall career satisfaction for the vast majority of participants.

Now, with the help of the recently awarded $1.2 million NSF grant, Gartstein is leading a new WSU program, the Values-based Academic Leadership Trajectories for Women in STEM, or VAuLTS, to take what was learned through the External Mentor Program and other ADVANCE initiatives at WSU to 12 other Northwest institutions of higher learning.

“Our aim is to empower participants to seek career advancement and leadership opportunities in higher education throughout the Northwest,” Gartstein said.

The first steps of the program will be setting up leadership training courses, external mentor programs, and regular online policy discussions at the four other doctorate degree-granting universities participating in VAuLTS. These are Montana State University, University of Montana, Oregon State University and Western Washington University.

Gartstein said the next step is to extend VAuLTS programing to community college partners: Wenatchee Valley College, Whatcom Community College, Missoula College, Columbia Basin College, Bellevue College, Heritage University, Everett Community College, and Yakima Valley College.

While it could take years to accomplish, the ultimate goal of VAuLTS is to give female faculty a louder voice when it comes to issues and policies pertaining to career advancement for women in STEM, beyond an ability to stop the tenure clock.

“Many of the higher education institutions we will be working with haven’t had the opportunity to participate in this kind of programming in the past,” Gartstein said. “Our eventual hope is to be able to advance enough women to the decision-making tables to begin removing barriers for other women to follow in their footsteps.”