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Boost for women geoscientists

The National Science Foundation (NSF) expects to announce several more awards from its ADVANCE program this month, intended to increase the number and proportion of women faculty in science and engineering. Numbers of women faculty in the geosciences, though increasing, have remained a concern.

According to recent data collected by Mary Ann Holmes and co-workers (Geotimes, September 2003), funded by ADVANCE, almost 60 percent of all tenure-track academic positions in the geosciences are held by men, and very few women are full professors. A recent survey of geoscientists conducted by the American Geophysical Union and the American Geological Institute (which publishes this magazine) found that women Ph.D. recipients were almost twice as likely as men to have considered dropping out because of lack of confidence; nevertheless, the study concluded that the numbers of women “in the pipeline” is increasing proportionally.

The institutions receiving ADVANCE institutional transformation grants — which can be up to $750,000 per year, for five years — are implementing their programming in different ways to help retain those women geoscientists at higher levels. At the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), for example, some of the money will fund appointments for female candidates’ spouses in different departments, as does the program at the University of California, Irvine, says Elizabeth Anthony of UTEP, one of two ADVANCE co-principal investigators who is a geoscientist. (The other is Ellen Druffel, an oceanographer at the University of California, Irvine.) Some schools, such as the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, provide a type of gender-awareness counseling to departments during the hiring process, and all have mentoring programs of some kind.

Women researchers at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) at Columbia University in New York, which has applied for an ADVANCE grant, already benefit from onsite childcare and other institutional efforts to support them. However, they have also lost several women faculty members and candidates.

Also, Columbia University’s own studies show that only a small percentage of their job applicants are female, fewer than might be expected. “They need to look at that,” Anthony says, as do all ADVANCE institutional grant receivers. “Is it a lack of mentoring? Of confidence? Or is it perceived that it’s so difficult?” On the other hand, those few women who apply “stand a decent chance,” she says, according to the data.

Robin Bell, a co-principal investigator on the grant proposal and senior research scientist in the LDEO Marine Geology and Geophysics Division, notes that geology has requirements such as fieldwork that make it different from other sciences. If the ADVANCE grant comes through, LDEO will study whether funding for childcare during fieldwork, or for women to do workshops, or similar ideas “actually help.” The goal, she says, is then to institutionalize those activities that work. “In the long run, it should make it a better place in general, not just for women.”

Depending on budget constraints, the ADVANCE program will announce its third round of competition soon. Bell says that LDEO should find out this month whether or not they will receive the award, which would be the first devoted to earth scientists.

Naomi Lubick

Links:

"The Status of Women in the Geosciences," Geotimes, September 2003
NSF ADVANCE home page and list of institutional transformation grant awardees
"Earth & Space Science PhDs, Class of 2002," synopsis of American Geophysical Union/American Geological Institute study


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