Career Navigation Found as Key Hurdle for Female Faculty

Strategies for improvements at RIT include mentoring, negotiation skills and policy review

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Margaret Bailey, left, and Carol Marchetti

Having an experienced sponsor as a guide in the workplace appears to be common practice for men, but not so with women as they attempt to move up career ladders, according to a study done by researchers at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Career navigation—the ability to strategically direct and progress through the stages of a profession—was one of the main areas the researchers discovered as a barrier to advancement of female faculty at the university.

“Men are positioning themselves for advancement, while women, who are far more stressed by the work/life balance, feel that their careers are slowed by personal responsibilities,” says Carol Marchetti, associate professor of statistics in RIT’s College of Science and a member of RIT’s research team. “It is often difficult to get people to have conversations about gender equity, but we have found it helpful to focus on the data and use this to build a case for change.”

Over the past 15 years, the gender balance has changed as the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics faculty at RIT has tripled. However, while the representation of female faculty has increased in the so-called STEM disciplines, it has done so at a slower rate, from approximately 16 percent in 1995 to nearly 23 percent in 2010. RIT’s research is starting to shed light on female faculty and their low numbers in STEM disciplines and leadership positions within the university, and validating emerging national data about gender disparities in higher education, in general.

RIT’s researchers found that upon hire, its female faculty receive less credit toward tenure and are less likely to be hired at a rank above assistant professor as compared with their male peers. While women reported spending more time focused on teaching, their male counterparts reported spending more time engaging in scholarship and in service to their discipline, areas that often determine advancement, including tenure.

Study data also indicated that men were more apt to be asked to take on leadership positions, further strengthening their career advancement. For female faculty, an additional barrier exists if they do not have a terminal degree in their discipline. Researchers found that 32 percent of female tenured and tenure-track RIT STEM faculty do not have a terminal degree, compared to 22 percent of men.

“Having a terminal degree can factor into success,” Marchetti says. “As you move ahead in the university, many of the jobs say ‘Ph.D. required.’”

Research data provides opportunities for transformation

“In our study we found significant gender differences in areas such as faculty salary, attrition rates and self-reported perception of climate and stress related to work/life balance. We also found that the representation of women faculty at RIT is below national benchmarks and that the percentage of women within our STEM candidate pools is below national availability,” says Margaret Bailey, professor of mechanical engineering and the principal investigator for the research initiative.

“Based on our findings and on the productive dialogue with, and action by the upper administration, there have been some positive moves over the past few years to address some of the issues identified. This study quantifies information and provides a platform for making long-term improvements in many areas, building on existing institutional structures and integrating new strategies.”

The RIT team also discovered that salary disparities between male and female faculty are most evident as female faculty rise in rank. Several interventions have since been initiated in response to the data, most notably in some salary adjustments within the colleges. And although administrators were aware of attrition among faculty, they were unaware of the fact that female faculty were departing at a significantly greater rate than their male peers. From 2002–2011, 107 tenured or tenure-track female faculty were hired. Of this number, 26 percent left as compared to 16 percent of the 200 male faculty hired, the report stated.

RIT has already started to address this issue by developing a new faculty-mentoring program and a faculty exit interview strategy. Prior to the study, RIT had no formal instrument or process in place, Bailey adds.

For the past few months, the research team has been disseminating information and results on campus and off, most recently at a presentation hosted by the Rochester chapter of the American Association of University Women, “Conversing on Diversity of Women Faculty–Asset or Liability.” RIT’s data is part of a three-year, comprehensive self-study, focused on the recruitment, retention and promotion of female faculty in STEM areas within higher education.

Note: The research initiative is an ADVANCE IT- Catalyst project funded by the National Science Foundation called “Establishing the Foundation for Future Organizational Reform and Transformation @ RIT,” also referred to as EFFORT@RIT. RIT was selected in 2008 as one of 11 schools to receive the grant to support institutional self-assessment activities. The research team was made up of faculty from four colleges at RIT as well as representatives from the university’s human resources department and its Center for Quality and Applied Statistics. The study included a climate survey which was administered in the fall of 2009 to all tenured and tenure-track faculty and received a 66 percent return rate overall with 71 percent of female faculty responding compared to 64 percent for males. The final report and background data is available.