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Looking for ways to boost women’s academic careers

PULLMAN – Despite studying academic careers for a decade, professor Kelly Ward can’t offer up a recipe for increasing the number of women on faculty. However, she knows what colleges shouldn’t do – hire more women and expect that to be enough.
“The most important thing is to have a long view,” said Ward, a WSU researcher who emphasizes the need for creating a supportive community. “If your focus is just to complete the search and hire someone who is female, or someone who is from a diverse background, that person is not going to stay long.”
Ward’s research was inspired by her own experience as a new mother and new faculty member at the WSU College of Education. For 10 years, she has tracked the careers of 120 women to see how they balance work and family demands. Now, with the help of two grants, she’s turned her attention to women’s careers in the male-dominated disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics—known collectively as STEM. 
In 2008, Ward received the Ben and Nancy Ellison Faculty Fellowship in Science, Math, Reading and Literacy. She began her fellowship project by studying academic departments throughout the country, looking at the best practices of those that are good at recruiting and retain women in STEM fields. This year, she is interviewing female faculty members who left WSU, asking them what made other academic pastures look greener.
Publicity about her fellowship prompted an invitation from WSU colleagues to take part in a five-year, $3.75 million project. It is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers program (ADVANCE). 
The goal of the project is to increase recruitment and retention of faculty women in the STEM fields throughout the WSU system. Robert Bates, director of research and graduate education at WSU Vancouver and principal investigator on the grant, was inspired to apply for the grant because women make up only 15 percent of STEM faculty, which means it “is under-utilizing half of the population” in addressing some of the world’s most pressing problems.
The research team is led by Professor Amy Wharton, a sociologist and director of liberal arts programs at WSU Vancouver.  She said Ward is an especially valuable contributor because she has served as an evaluator on other universities’ ADVANCE grants.
“One thing Kelly did right away, which was a fantastic idea, was to say, ‘Let’s pull together earlier data,’” Wharton said. “She did a report of reports, which has been really helpful—it provided a baseline for our project to know what other universities have found.”
Helping with Ward’s ADVANCE project is Briana Keafer, a microbiologist who is working on an education doctoral degree.  The two researchers have found that academic departments wanting to retain women try their best to be family friendly.
“For example, starting meetings later or ending them earlier can help faculty members manage work and family more easily,” Ward said. “Another good idea is to ask guest speakers to discuss career issues. Having an established chemist talk about career development in chemistry can be eye-opening for all faculty.”
Ward praised WSU’s policy that encourages hiring of academic couples. It’s especially common for women in the sciences to be partnered with other scientists, she said. But those couples might not stay if the university community is not a good place to raise children.
“This isn’t just about WSU and its faculty, but about people’s lives,” she said.
For more information about Kelly Ward, see her faculty profile.

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