Two Hires Can Be Better Than One

01/05/06
Marking a five-year milestone, USC’s Women in Science and Engineering Program continues its goal of recruiting female scholars. Because of intense competition for worthy candidates, the process may include the pursuit of their partners as well.
By Allison Engel
“The partner issue is only going to increase in importance as more women choose to pursue careers in engineering and science," said Jean Morrison, the director of USC’s Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) Program.

Photo/Irene Fertik
What prevents universities from hiring more women in science and engineering?

There are several barriers, both institutional and cultural, but one increasingly important impediment is the so-called “partner issue.”

Historically, men studying science and engineering tended to marry women in other disciplines, since there weren’t many women in their classrooms. When these men finished graduate school and went looking for university positions, their wives typically found jobs outside academia.

Women studying science and engineering, however, tend to marry men they interact with in their classes. When these women apply for university appointments, their partner is often looking for a similar job. The university then must scramble to find a second open slot.

Since there is great competition for the small pool of top women science and engineering faculty applicants, the institutions that can quickly accommodate partners hire more women.

“Institutions that recognize the potential competitive advantage of hiring outstanding couples are going to be more successful at increasing the number of excellent women on their faculties than those that don’t,” said Jean Morrison, the director of USC’s Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) Program and professor of earth sciences.

“The partner issue is only going to increase in importance as more women choose to pursue careers in engineering and science. Institutions around the country are developing new creative approaches and policies to address the issue,” Morrison said.

A lack of specific policies has hurt USC, said Hanna Reisler, the Lloyd Armstrong, Jr. Professor of Science and Engineering in the chemistry department and longtime chair of the advisory board for the WiSE program. “We have lost excellent candidates when we could not come up with a partner appointment on time,” she said.

Losing even one qualified candidate hurts when the numbers of female faculty members in the sciences are so small. In 2000, the year the WiSE endowment was created with a $20 million gift from a woman who wished to remain anonymous, there were only 15 female tenured and tenure-track science and engineering faculty members campus-wide, out of a total of about 300.

The WiSE advisory board set an ambitious goal of doubling that number in five years. As of today, it has come close. There are now 29 female science and engineering faculty members.

The leaders of WiSE said there is much cause for celebration at this five-year milestone. The USC Viterbi School of Engineering tripled its number of female faculty members, going from four to 12, Reisler noted. Former Dean C. L. Max Nikias was “very, very proactive” on the issue,” she said. “He really understood and felt in his heart that we should do this.”

Life sciences also have done well in hiring, doubling the number of tenured and tenure-track women, thanks in part to a larger pool of women scholars. But the physical sciences still are lagging. “We have not made the kind of progress we were hoping for in the physical sciences,” Morrison said.

In its first half decade, the WiSE initiative created a comprehensive set of programs to get women enthusiastic about science and engineering early in their lives and to continue with graduate and postgraduate work. There are travel grants, undergraduate and graduate research fellowships, child-care stipends, and money for high school and middle-school girls to attend USC’s Summer Science Program. (For more information, visit http://www.usc.edu/admin/provost/WISE/.)

One obstacle that program leaders now are turning their attention to is “the leaky pipeline.” Nationwide, women receive between 20 to 50 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and science, depending on the discipline. But, on average, only about 10 to 15 percent of academic tenured and tenure-track faculty in engineering and sciences are women. This disconnect comes because many women feel they cannot combine academic life with the raising of children.

It’s usually a question of time, not money, Reisler said. “Although they may be able to afford to hire a nanny, they want to spend time with their children and also have time to teach, submit grants, write papers and confer with fellow researchers. We need to give them some relief during those years when their children are young and they are overwhelmed, such as a reduced teaching load, and relief from service and committee obligations.”

A one-year extension of the tenure clock is available for both men and women, and Reisler feels that improving on-site child care will help attract more women faculty to USC.

Reisler also would like to see some form of family leave policy for graduate students. Currently, a pregnant graduate student has no covered maternity leave, not even for a day, she noted, which adds greatly to the stress of combining family life with academics.

Increasing the hiring of women faculty members is a primary goal of the WiSE Program for the next five years, but it also seeks to create a supportive environment that enables women to thrive at USC. To that end, the WiSE faculty group is continuing its five-year tradition of brown bag lunches.

On the last Thursday of each month, between 15 and 20 women faculty leave their laboratories to network over lunch and provide support for each other’s endeavors. These networking meetings are now being extended, with WiSE Program support, to women graduate students in science and engineering.

“We believe that we have created a very effective series of programs at USC that will increase the representation of women in science and engineering and improve the culture,” Morrison said. “We are very excited about the future.”