Health/Life Sciences

Q&A: Univ. of Washington STEM chief on her Presidential Award and supporting girls school

Joyce Yen, director of the University of Washington’s ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change. (UW Photo)

An academic career in STEM is about specialized knowledge, access, and connections that foster collaboration and access. Professors are managers, teachers, and busy miners of outside funding. Their most demanding years often overlap with early parenthood. And colleagues can be fiercely judgmental.

Academics is often an insider’s game, and for women it’s been a long road over decades to break into the club. 

Progress has been slow, but steady. At the University of Washington, the number of women faculty in STEM fields has outpaced growth nationally in the last 20 years. Joyce Yen, director of the UW ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change, says her organization’s mission to help support faculty is behind some of that progress.

Others agree. Last month Yen was recognized with an award from President Biden as one of 12 individuals to receive the $10,000 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. Yen follows two former directors of the UW program, Eve Riskin and the late Denice Denton, who also earned the honor.

The program launched in 2001 as part of the inaugural cohort of nationwide ADVANCE institutions funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation to support hiring and retention of women faculty. Since then, the UW program has branched out to serve all faculty in STEM and beyond, though it still hosts a monthly mentoring lunch for women faculty.

Its workshops train faculty how to run a lab, write grants, or provide mentorship, and it partners with departments to examine hiring practices and eliminate bias. The program helps women, but it also helps everyone.

From 2001 to 2019, the percentage of women faculty across ten UW engineering departments increased from 14% to 26%. In the natural sciences, the increase was 13% to 24% during the same timeframe.  

Yen also heads several national training and mentorship programs for early-career Ph.D. scientists and engineers from under-represented groups.

GeekWire recently spoke with Yen, a former UW assistant professor of industrial engineering, about the program and how to increase women’s participation in STEM academic jobs. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

GeekWire: How has the UW ADVANCE program contributed to the increase in women faculty at the UW?

Yen: Culture change takes a long time. One of the key things is our longevity, and part of our longevity is due to the fact that we spend a lot of time investing in relationships with people. We have become a trusted resource for department leaders, so they will come and ask us questions, and ask us how to improve their faculty hiring process, and how to better support their faculty. They point their faculty to ADVANCE as a resource on campus.

When faculty candidates are interviewed on campus, we try to meet with them. We hear from women faculty that talking to ADVANCE and hearing what was available through the program was one of the key features that attracted them to the University of Washington. We’re trying to build a whole culture of everybody being invested in faculty success, and women faculty in particular. 

Do you feel you’ve contributed to structural changes within departments to support women faculty?   

One of our flagship programs is quarterly workshops for department chairs, and this goes beyond our science and engineering departments. They are saying that their interactions with ADVANCE have shaped their own leadership skill development, and also helped them know what resources are available on campus. People also change their own operations and how they handle issues based on what they’ve learned through ADVANCE.

Over these 20 years we have been having a steady conversation with our faculty and department chairs around faculty hiring, and around what are some effective and better practices to create a more inclusive faculty hiring experience and process.

We have been helping departments to think about how they assess not just research skills and teaching skills, but also leadership skills, particularly with respect to culture, climate, equity and inclusion. Part of being a good researcher is having an understanding of these issues. Good researchers are inclusive researchers.

Why do some fields, like computer science, have lagging participation by women and lower numbers of women faculty?

Percentage of women-awarded doctorates in STEM fields in the U.S. (PEW Research Center chart)

There’s a lot going on there. It’s a combination of not only critical mass [of women] but also the culture, who is viewed as valuable and knowledgeable in those fields. The environment is a combination of so many different things. There’s research that talks about this correlation between [perceptions of] what kind of innate ability you need to have in a field and the gender diversity in that field. The more you think you have to be born with it or there’s an innate ability in the field, the less gender diverse the field is. All these things are intersecting at the same time.

Culture in and of itself is super complicated and multi-dimensional, and there’s lots of different ways to have some small wins to nudge that culture along. So, once you start moving in those directions, you can see those small wins keep building and building, and next thing you know, the field or the department looks pretty different — but it doesn’t happen instantaneously.

Do efforts to examine hiring practices for women faculty create barriers to hiring equally- or better-qualified men? Former UW computer science professor Pedro Domingos, for instance, recently asserted that men are being discriminated against.

Research has illuminated how culture, norms, and many other factors influence who is and is not advancing in and participating in STEM. My UW colleague Sapna Cheryan has done great work on the impact of masculine culture in STEM.

Two articles from Science provide additional useful context. The first article talks about the pathways for men and women of different science and math achievement levels. [The study concludes that more lower-achieving men than women are majoring in physics, engineering and computer science as undergraduates. Therefore, if graduate programs selected only the basis of merit, they would expect to see a higher proportion of women than undergraduate programs]. The second article shows the relationships between believing in innate talent and gender distributions in academic disciplines.

Thus, asking if highly qualified men are disadvantaged in fields with gender disparities is not the question we should be asking. Rather, we should be exploring the causes of the disparities and strategies for creating inclusive fields for people from all backgrounds to succeed and contribute.

What can other universities learn from your program?

The crux of my award, how I think about it, is really the value of building relationships and community to create a sense of belonging, and to create inclusive environments — to not underestimate community- and relationship-building in some fields, which can get overlooked. I spend a lot of time building relationships with people as much as I can, from new faculty to department chairs. And that leads to conversations, to information sharing, and to networking and connecting people. All of those things are part of the whole success story of everyone in science.  

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