For Barbara Hill, the disparity between men and women in her chosen field of geology was brought home by a subtle, unintentional moment of sexism in a lab. While working alongside her on a piece of equipment, a professor held up a common tool. “He said, ‘We call this a channel lock,’” says Hill, a Ph.D. candidate in geology. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, I know that.’ But I didn’t say anything to him until the next day, when I told him he’d said something very sexist and that it bothered me. He said, ‘Oh, I didn’t think about it.’ Would he have explained that to a guy the same age and status as me? No. He would have said, ‘Hand me the channel lock.’”
      Like many women in the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering, Hill has encountered more blatant sexism. As an undergraduate in Oklahoma during the ’70s, she had a professor who flatly stated that women were not suited to be geologists, and a fellow student asserted that she was merely in school to find a husband. Hill has also felt the sense of isolation that comes from attending classes taught almost exclusively by male professors to rooms full of men. Her work experience varied little from the academic world: As a geologist for Exxon, she was stationed on an isolated oil rig, the only woman among 50 men. “I have been told very frankly that I could not have a job because I was female, even though my background and my abilities were superior,” she says. “This is the kind of stuff we face. I think the more women there are in the science and engineering fields—the more they are seen, and out there in leadership positions—the more we will be accepted in these fields.”
      Such is the goal of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) initiative started last year at SU by Cathryn Newtown, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and chair of the Department of Earth Sciences; and Shobha Bhatia, a professor in the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) and the first woman to chair the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The program, active on campuses around the world, includes advocating for increased hiring of women faculty in sciences, mathematics, engineering, and computer science; University-wide lectures by prominent women scientists, engineers, and scholars; and advising initiatives aimed at providing mentors for women students embarking on their first research projects. Newton, SU’s Jessie Page Heroy Professor of Earth Sciences, says WISE can help stem the steady loss of women from the sciences and engineering at all levels, from undergraduate to professional. “There has always been this sense of a leaky pipeline in non-traditional fields for women,” she says. “Part of the cause is the inevitable feeling of isolation and sometimes alienation of being the only woman, or one of the few.”
      Bhatia, a Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor, notes that by attracting more women faculty members, exposing the campus community to leading women scientists and engineers, and providing mentors for budding researchers, WISE provides needed role models for women students. Hill says WISE programs and gatherings have diminished her own sense of isolation. “They let me see that there are many other women at SU who are in close to the same boat that I am,” she says. “I went through my undergraduate years with no female faculty in the department. I went through my master’s degree with only one female faculty member. And for my Ph.D. there’s only one female faculty member. What I missed out on was knowing that the way I think about things, the way that I approach things, is OK. Women and men just approach things differently.”

Female Faces Among the Faculty

When WISE began at SU last year, only 14 of 132 faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Natural Sciences and Mathematics Division were women. In ECS, 4 out of 64 faculty were women. The numbers were surprisingly low, Bhatia says, compared to the numbers of women undergraduates enrolled in the colleges. In the psychology department, for example, 71 percent of undergraduates were women, taught by a faculty that was only 19 percent female. Women made up approximately 50 percent of the enrollment in the remaining science and mathematics departments, but only 8 percent of the faculty. In engineering, 26 percent of the students and 6 percent of the faculty were women. “One of the most significant predictors for women’s success in the sciences and engineering is whether somewhere in their history there is a mentor or other visible senior woman in the program in which they enroll,” Newton says. “It doesn’t have to be an advisor or their professor. But the student looks around and asks, ‘Is there someone here like me?’”
      Aside from being role models, Hill says, women professors may seem more accessible to young women. “When I work with students as a teaching assistant, I notice that the women are somewhat hesitant to acknowledge things they’re having trouble with in class,” she says. “I try to make sure they know it’s OK to come and talk to me. Often the real trouble is they’re having problems at home, with relationships, or some other difficulty. I’m not sure how many of those women would go to a male instructor with those problems.”
      With three new hires in ECS and two in the College of Arts and Sciences over the last year, the numbers are improving, Bhatia says. Faculty members associated with WISE meet with all women candidates, regardless of department, taking them to lunch to discuss issues outside the interview process. “Typically, we talk about our own collaborations,” she says. “Most of the candidates seem to appreciate an informal discussion with other faculty. There are tenure issues, issues about children, issues about mentoring. Sometimes those are hard to raise in a formal interview setting.”
      Newton says the WISE initiative played an important role in shaping the nine current faculty searches in the College of Arts and Sciences. One new recruit is Earth sciences professor Suzanne Baldwin, who came to SU this year from the University of Arizona at Tucson. The Department of Earth Sciences hired her husband and research partner, Paul Fitzgerald, as well. “We’re a team, and SU recognized the benefit of that,” Baldwin says. “That was a big factor, and it is an issue for many faculty members. If you’re married to another professor, you have to give and take and try to find a way for both people to go down the career paths they want. This gave us a great opportunity to really excel at what we do.”

      Though drawn to science in high school, Baldwin was unsure of which field she wanted to study as an undergraduate at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. In fact, she very nearly became a dance major. “I started off as a biology major, then took chemistry, physics, and math,” she says. “At the same time, I took ballet and modern dance. Very different courses.” A geology course that included fieldwork finally piqued her interest. “That became the science I could be passionate about,” she says. “I like to be outdoors, I like going on adventures. Here was a science I could enjoy out in the field, but with a basis in the hard sciences. Geosciences integrate chemistry, math, physics, and biology to look at how the Earth has evolved over time.”
      Though she was aware of the relatively small number of women studying the sciences, Baldwin experienced few problems as a student. At the State University of New York (SUNY) Albany, she was unaware that she was the first woman to finish a Ph.D. in Earth sciences until she submitted her dissertation. “I didn’t realize the importance of role models until I actually became a professor and began advising women who were finishing graduate degrees under my supervision,” she says. “Having said that, I have to admit that a factor in our decision to come here was that there’s apparently no glass ceiling at SU. The provost is a woman. The chairperson who recruited us is a woman, and is now the interim dean. It seems to me there are no real restrictions on how far you can go.”

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