by Marci Monson

Career equality for women has been a nationwide, decades-long challenge. Despite many attempts to ensure it through legislation (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963), women continue to face inequality in the workplace.

Even today, women at universities—especially in male-dominated disciplines such as science and engineering—report being overlooked for promotions, feelings of isolation, and workplace hostility.

As universities across the country struggle with gender equity challenges, USU has also seen a disparity. The College of Engineering at USU reported in 2004 that out of 82 tenured or tenure-track faculty members, only six were women. An imbalance of male and female faculty also occurred throughout the colleges of agriculture, engineering, natural resources, and science.

“Highly qualified women were being lost at each stage of advancement during their careers,” said Ronda Callister, USU management and human resources researcher. “That means a loss of investment, a loss of qualified thinkers, a loss of role models, and a loss of diversity.”

Callister became involved in the ADVANCE program to help study and remedy the situation. The program was formed in 2001 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with the goal to increase the representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers. In 2003, USU was awarded a $3 million ADVANCE grant and became one of just 19 institutions nationwide to receive the funding. The object of the ADVANCE grant was for investigators to work internally with departments at their own universities to ensure that all university professors have the same access to resources and opportunities to succeed.

Callister knew that by receiving the grant, USU could improve the recruitment and advancement of women faculty members in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). She wanted to create change at USU through non-traditional research, and she has spent the last six years doing so. Rather than just studying the problem, her team has actively tried to remedy it.

“Creating career equality at USU could only be done through a coordinated campus effort,” said Callister. “Research suggests that much of the bias against women was implicit, and many recruiters and employers were unaware of the way their own implicit bias was affecting their decision-making. Our main goal was to create awareness, help people to see the bias, isolation, and ineffectiveness, and recognize how important it was for women not only to stay, but also to thrive.”

One of the major problems identified by Callister and her team was the isolation of women professors at universities across the country and the adverse affect on their careers.

“Everyone in a work environment looks to others as mentors and collaborators,” said Callister. “When a woman is the only female in her department, it is harder for her to find those collaborators.”

This can also be a problem for students, as female students often seek out female professors for advice and mentorship. By understanding these issues, departments could help to negate the isolation problem by supporting their existing female faculty and hiring more women when possible.

The ADVANCE team used numerous methods—surveys, interviews, and focus groups—to spread career bias awareness. The team also encouraged changes in faculty through education and recruitment.

In the fall of 2007, undergraduates in USU professor Robert Mills’ development class bolstered the efforts of the ADVANCE program by helping to create a training system to aid university employees in practicing unbiased employee recruitment and hiring practices. Callister worked with the class along the way and helped to revise the proposed training program at each step.

“It is impossible to create a bias-free environment,” she said. “The goal is to reduce bias.”

Furthermore, the NSF hired an outside consultant to interview confidentially each faculty member of three USU departments to discover the root concerns leading to the under utilization of talented women in the workplace, as well as to discuss department climate issues and what steps needed to be taken to improve them. Faculty members then brainstormed ways in which the workplace could be more effective and efficient, allowing for a more integrated work and home life.

So has it worked? Callister would like to think so.

It has been over five years since the ADVANCE grant was awarded, and the changes are evident. There is noticeable improvement in promotion, tenure, and hiring rates of women throughout the university. In 2008, 24 percent of new hires in STEM were women and —for the first time in USU’s history—women exceeded men in the number of faculty promoted to full professor university-wide.

Although the five-year timeframe for the grant has concluded, the efforts to create career equality will continue. Callister is currently working on a Caregiving policy to make it easier for faculty at USU to take parental leave when a child is born or adopted. She also has plans to write and publish her research, which has the potential for significant impact on the management and human resources field and other universities across the country.

As Callister said, “We have the potential to continue to make a real positive difference in the lives of other people, specifically women graduates and faculty.”