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A woman's place in the lab

Harvard studies efforts to boost female faculty at U-Wisconsin

MADISON, Wisconsin -- The electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison had a lackluster record on gender equality for many years.

In the late 1980s, a curmudgeonly male colleague locked the department's only female professor out of her lab, and no one in the department intervened until she appealed to senior campus administrators. Over the next dozen years, the department of 40 to 50 people hired only four more women, and two of them left before tenure.

Then, two years ago, department chairman Christopher DeMarco attended a workshop designed to improve the campus climate for women, offered by the university's three-year-old Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute. After hearing a litany of evidence that women were generally judged more harshly than men, he responded like the engineer he is, by setting out to solve the problem. He gave copies of the research on bias to his faculty search committee, as well as a national list compiled annually of women and minorities earning doctorates in engineering.

In the last two years, DeMarco's department has hired three women.

DeMarco said he had always wanted ''to believe we are a meritocracy." But he found the evidence to the contrary persuasive. ''What really wins over academics is citing research," he said, pointing out that the workshop even provided a bibliography.

The workshop DeMarco attended is one innovation that officials at Harvard University have been studying as the university's task forces on women prepare to make recommendations this month to President Lawrence H. Summers on how to improve Harvard's record of hiring and promoting women.

Summers appointed the task forces in February in response to an outcry over his comments that differences between men and women in ''intrinsic aptitude" may help explain why so few women make it to the top of academia in science and engineering. He was already under fire for a drastic drop in the number of tenured jobs offered to women in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the university's main undergraduate and doctoral division, during the first three years of his presidency.

The task forces have looked at the experiences of several other universities, from private institutions, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University that have intensively studied discrimination on campus, to a group of mostly public universities, including the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where the National Science Foundation has funded a broad range of experiments to boost representation of women in science and engineering.

''We've identified two essential leverage points for increasing the number of women on the faculty," said Barbara J. Grosz, chairwoman of Harvard's task force on women in science and engineering.

One is those who chair departments, because they ''influence the overall department environment and thus the whole pipeline" of women in academia, she said. The other is those who chair search committees, she said.

''The intensive training programs developed at Wisconsin and Michigan are of interest to us in addressing these leverage points," Grosz said.

Since the Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute is so new, officials at the Madison campus are reluctant to make statements about its overall impact, especially because the number of people hired each year is so small.

But they do point to some signs of success. In the College of Engineering, only two of the 36 junior professors hired between 1999 and 2002 were women, or 6 percent. In the last two years, six of engineering's 14 hires, or 43 percent, were women, according to the institute's data.

Results have been mixed in other sciences, where some of the leaders have not been as aggressive as the engineering dean in making gender equity a priority. Of 11 natural science departments, five will have female chairwomen next year, up from just two this year. In the physical sciences, 29 percent (4 out of 14) of junior hires in the last two years were women, up only modestly from the 21 percent of hires between 1999 and 2002.

The Wisconsin institute has used the five-year, $3.75 million grant from the National Science Foundation to fund a variety of efforts, including in-depth research on women's status on campus, lecture series, and grants that keep women's labs operating when a family crisis interrupts their science work. But the institute's centerpiece is the voluntary workshops for department heads and search committee members. Since they started two years ago, about 20 department heads and 75 search committee members have attended.

The workshops for department heads, a series of three sessions, focus on two main issues. One is the climate, the atmosphere experienced by members of the department. The institute's research indicated that female professors at the Madison campus were more likely to feel excluded from decision-making and less likely to feel that their work was valued by their colleagues. They were also more likely to leave the university.

As part of each workshop, the institute conducts a confidential, anonymous survey of each head's department. The heads are often shocked to see how much unhappiness exists around them, said Jo Handelsman, codirector of the institute.

The survey is ''very sobering for them, because they can't dismiss it anymore," said Handelsman, a microbiologist and Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor.

The second key ingredient to the workshops is a crash course in the research on unconscious bias. In one study, both men and women evaluated the same resume more favorably when a man's name was attached than when the resume carried a woman's name. Recommendation letters for women tend to be shorter, raise more doubts, and portray women as students and teachers, rather than in roles that are more highly valued, as researchers and professionals.

Being confronted with this kind of research leaves many scientists ''shocked and, frankly, annoyed," said Handelsman, but ultimately leads many of them to acknowledge that ''we can't assume we are unprejudiced people."

Armed with ideas he learned at the workshop, DeMarco and others in the department made changes to the way they went about hiring. They advertised in new places, such as a website for female electrical engineers and a magazine for women and minority-group members in the field.

They also made the job descriptions as broad as possible, to attract a bigger pool of applicants. In fact, one of the women they hired had originally applied for a job in a different department altogether. (Along with the three recent female hires, the department has hired eight men.)

Amy Wendt, a professor in electrical and computer engineering since 1990, marvels at the changes she's seen in the last few years, for which she credits the institute, as well as other campus policies like the extra time to earn tenure granted to new parents and mentoring programs for female professors.

In the last couple years, ''I've heard my colleagues gush about female candidates in ways I had never heard before," said Wendt, who currently chairs the search committee and will cochair the department next year, something she had never been asked to do before.

Handelsman said that one of the things that drove her to cofound the institute was the wish that other women could experience a workplace as normal as hers. In her department, plant pathology, one-third of the professors are women. Gone are the days when she felt patronized or passed over for opportunities she believed she deserved. Having a critical mass, she said, ''takes the spotlight off gender and lets women just be scientists."

Still, advocates for women at the Madison campus say they don't see a totally rosy picture, because it is so difficult to win over faculty members who are not particularly interested in gender issues and aren't aware of the research on bias or who, in some cases, blatantly discriminate against women.

The cochairwoman of the university's committee on women, ecologist Nancy Mathews, said she recently switched departments because her male colleagues didn't respect her research, saddled her with extra responsibilities, and paid her less.

Mathews, Handelsman, and others say that substantial change takes many years, great visibility, and a lot of vocal support from leaders.

Harvard has already had a chance to learn this, having made progress hiring women in the 1990s, only to see some of the gains erode. It is a problem Harvard will struggle with once again, as the university tries to turn the task force recommendations into meaningful change.

''We have a lot of people committed to fairness, and we have fabulous leadership, but we still have a large segment of faculty who in their hearts aren't convinced there's a problem," Handelsman said. Of the last group, she said, ''I am not sure how to reach them."

Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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