Elusive Equity

“It is not lack of talent, but unintentional biases and outmoded institutional structures that are hindering the access and advancement of women.”
— Beyond Bias and Barriers, National Academy of Sciences

As a 25-year-old Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, Jane Lubchenco joined her classmates at the biology department’s annual orientation meeting for incoming graduate students. A professor welcomed the group and asked them to look around the room. Take note, he told them, that equal numbers of men and women were present.

“He said, ‘This is the first time in the history of the department that’s been the case. And we think it’s appropriate and remarkable, and I want you to understand why we have chosen to have this balance,’” Lubchenco recalls. “‘We have learned from experience that the men graduate students are not happy if they do not have women around. So we have chosen to accept more women graduate students to satisfy that need, and we don’t really expect all of you to finish.’”

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Raised with her five sisters to be a competitive athlete and star pupil and to spare no effort in accomplishing her goals, Lubchenco took the comment as a challenge. “It motivated me to show him how wrong-headed his worldview was,” she says. Not only did she finish, she became the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the first female administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a MacArthur “genius” fellow, the winner of numerous other scientific awards and a Distinguished Professor of zoology at Oregon State.

But in 1972, the Harvard professor’s attitude reflected a shared opinion that created a Berlin Wall for many women in higher education, barring them from jobs and opportunities for advancement. However capable or committed they were, women were often considered a “bad investment,” wrote Donna Shalala, head of the National Academy of Sciences committee that in 2007 produced a report on gender discrimination, Beyond Bias and Barriers. Noting that women tend to be offered lower starting salaries and are poorly represented in leadership roles, that report called for a national effort to end systemic gender bias in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields.

These leaders from some of the nation’s top universities and think tanks advised academia to provide “equitable and unbiased evaluation of accomplishment, equitable allocations of support and resources, pay equity, and gender-equal family leave policies. Otherwise,” it warned, “a large number of the people trained in and capable of doing the very best science and engineering will not participate as they should in scientific and engineering professions.

Well before this call to action, the alarm was heard at Oregon State. Against a backdrop of activities going back to the 1970s, a new initiative — known appropriately enough as ADVANCE — aims to create true equal opportunity for women in STEM and across the university.


In 1972, on the heels of the women’s liberation movement of the ‘60s, OSU created the President’s Commission on the Status of Women to promote the well-being and advancement of women in all walks of campus life.

Our university will be an inclusive community that reflects and practices our belief in the educational value of diversity and equal opportunity.
— Strategic Plan 3.0, Oregon State University

Six years later, OSU reached a milestone in family-friendly work policies: Lubchenco and her husband Bruce Menge — both marine biologists — were among the first couples hired to split a single tenure-track position at an American university. They had looked for an institution where they could grow professionally and share the day-to-day responsibilities of raising their children.

“We each loved teaching and doing research. Neither of us wanted to give that up,” says Lubchenco. “Typically the guy would have the full-time job and the woman would be the caregiver. That’s what all of our colleagues and friends from graduate school did at that time.

“We talked to many universities about this. Most of them were thinking of all the reasons they could not do it,” she adds. “Oregon State was exceptionally visionary.” Other science and engineering couples at OSU have followed in their wake.

Over time, a student scholarship to support women in science and changes in faculty recruitment policies added fuel to the fire for equity. In the 1980s, former College of Science dean Fred Horne set a high priority on recruiting women for tenure-track positions and promoting them to department chairs. And to support female students, he and his wife Clara Horne, head adviser in the College of Business, established The Clara & Fred Horne Scholarship for Women in Science. In the College of Engineering, search committees are encouraged to advance qualified women, minorities and veterans to the interview stage.

Mostly Male

Despite these and other measures — a nationally recognized program known as Difference, Power, and Discrimination (DPD); offices of Equity and Inclusion and Work/Life Balance; a dual-career hiring initiative; and a spousal employment network known as the Greater Oregon Higher Education Recruitment Consortium — employment in STEM fields at Oregon State is still overwhelmingly male. In 2012, 21 percent of tenured and tenure-track STEM faculty were women. By comparison, women comprised 34 percent of tenure-track faculty in all fields and nearly 42 percent of faculty in the social and behavioral sciences.

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Nationally, the picture is similar. According to U.S. News and World Report, women comprised about 18 percent of full professors in science and engineering in 2013.

Part of the difficulty, says Becky Warner, senior vice provost for Academic Affairs, can be traced to the expectations that greet all new STEM faculty and affect women in particular. “What many women find is that at the same time they’re having a family, they are trying to develop their career and get tenure. That’s not unique to STEM. What’s unique to STEM is the rigidity of the science itself. Long hours in the lab and being in the field for weeks at a time are not conducive to having a full, flexible and balanced life.”

Habitual attitudes also play a role, she adds. Women sometimes face “a lack of awareness among the men who have been in control of the disciplines that it’s an issue.”

A more equitable, family-friendly workplace is not just a women’s issue. Some observers of faculty hiring note that male candidates often express a desire for family-friendly policies. As did Menge and others before him, they want a meaningful role in raising children and, in the case of dual-career couples, opportunities for a spouse.

Yigit Menguc, a new assistant professor of mechanical engineering, puts it this way: “Traditional modes of work-life balance would have me, as a man, emphasizing ‘work’ while my wife emphasizes ‘life,’ which is no balance at all. Furthermore, as faculty, I have a responsibility to make the next generation of engineers and scientists more plural in its diversity. Maintaining a good work-life balance can serve as a practical example for both men and women in my research lab and in my classroom.”

Digging Deeper

With support from the NSF, Oregon State is launching a program to explore the cultural and structural factors that steer women away from tenure-track positions in STEM fields. Known as Oregon State University ADVANCE, the program aims to change institutional practice as well as personal behavior.

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The principal investigator for ADVANCE is Susan Shaw, director of the School of Language, Culture and Society and a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies in the College of Liberal Arts. In addition to Warner, faculty from oceanography, bioengineering, sociology and natural resources are among the co-investigators. Planning for the initiative took two years and meetings with more than 40 people at Oregon State.

“I was horrified by some of the stories I heard from our colleagues,” says Shaw. Some examples of discrimination they heard were overt, but others comprised “micro-aggressions, the little stuff that, in and of itself, you might not think is a big deal when it happens, but when it’s repeated, it starts to feel very aggressive.”

For example, she says, faculty may refer to male students by name and to females by appearance. Or people make inaccurate assumptions, such as calling males “Dr.” and females “Mrs.” After a 28-year career as a professor in higher education, Shaw regularly gets emails and phone calls for “Mrs. Shaw.”

Over the next five years, ADVANCE will conduct workshops, offer public lectures, publish an academic journal and evaluate the impact of these activities on campus culture and the hiring and retention of women in STEM fields. For a centerpiece, it will revise OSU’s signature Difference, Power, and Discrimination program for use in STEM fields. Through DPD, OSU faculty will study the theory and application of systems that perpetuate inequality.

Emphasis will also be put on the diversity of women’s experiences. “We’re not looking at women as a monolithic group, but we’re paying attention to differences among women across age, ability, class, race and sexual identity,” Shaw explains. “If we make things better across these differences, we make things better for everybody.”

For scientists like Lubchenco — those who received the occasional egregious insult in their academic careers — ADVANCE is welcome. “It’s a terribly exciting time to be a woman in science,” Lubchenco says. “There are so many opportunities that are available that were much more difficult in earlier years. That said, there are major challenges, and we need to face up to them. I’m delighted with the sustained attention that OSU has paid to these issues of many years.”


Leadership in ADVANCE

Susan Shaw, director of the School of Language, Culture and Society

Becky Warner, senior vice provost for Academic Affairs

Michelle Bothwell, associate professor, College of Engineering

Lisa Gaines, director of the Institute for Natural Resources

Tuba Özkan-Haller, professor, College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Dwaine Plaza, professor, College of Liberal Arts

Deborah John, assistant professor, College of Public Health and Human Sciences

Nana Osei-Kofi, director of the Difference, Power, and Discrimination Program

Sarina Saturn, assistant professor, College of Liberal Arts

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