EmPOWREment and ADVANCEment for Women: NSF Programs for Women in Science

"[Gender barriers] will not go away on their own," writes Virginia Valian (1). "Any objective differences in performance are insufficient to explain differences in salary, rank, and rates of promotion."

Given the significant underrepresentation of women in postgraduate science positions, how can gender barriers be removed? The National Science Foundation (NSF) has been trying to answer this question for years, first with the Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education (POWRE) grant program and, more recently, with the ADVANCE cross-cutting grants.

NSF initiated POWRE in 1997 as an individual fellowship program, to foster professional growth during the tenure-track years and to increase the pool of female role models in science and engineering. POWRE replaced and expanded on several existing NSF programs: Visiting Professorships for Women, Faculty Awards for Women, Research Planning Grants for Women, and Career Advancement Awards for Women.

POWRE was a highly competitive program: Overall only 26% of women who applied were funded. Over a 4-year period POWRE financed over 600 women nationwide at a critical stage of their science careers--the point at which the proportion of women starts to decline precipitously.

The POWRE program made a difference, but it wasn't designed to deal with some of the most important problems. Sue Rosser, dean of Ivan Allen College at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and former chief of women's programs at NSF, conducted a survey of 598 POWRE recipients to learn about "the most significant issues/challenges/opportunities facing women scientists today as they plan their careers" (2). At the top of the list: "balancing work with family responsibilities (children, elderly relatives, etc.)."

In addition, Rosser found a pervasive culture of science that discouraged the career advancement of women in academia. Women had higher teaching loads and were under more pressure to serve on committees than their male counterparts. Many grantees were concerned that having few female colleagues with whom to associate made it more difficult for them to network and find mentors. Furthermore, the scarcity of women scientists added to the pressure to be the "female representative" on committees and to serve as mentor to female students and postdocs. POWRE awardees also felt that they had to struggle to gain credibility and respectability from peers and administrators. Last but not least, Rosser found that in many dual-doctorate couples, women often settled for less prestigious positions in order to be in the same geographical area as their partner.

Rosser's survey, as well as a landmark study out of MIT (3), demonstrated that many of the women-in-science issues need to be addressed at the institutional level. Unfortunately POWRE, which was limited to individual fellowships, could do little to facilitate institutional change.

In 2001, NSF replaced POWRE with the ADVANCE program, which makes three levels of awards: 1) Fellowship Awards, 2) Leadership Awards, and 3) Institutional Transformation Awards. All three awards share the same general objective as the POWRE program--increasing the participation and advancement of women scientists and engineers in academia--but the ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Awards target policy and programs with the potential to change the culture of science. As Priscilla Kehoe, director of the ADVANCE program at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), puts it, "You have to develop a program which tackles the problem from the top down."

In the first funding cycle of the ADVANCE program, nine universities and colleges were awarded as much as $4 million over a period of 5 years. With a variety of needs, structures, and progress represented by these institutions, NSF has a rich test-bed on which to analyze the kinds of policies and practices that work and to define the settings in which they do so.

At UCI, an ADVANCE grant allowed them to restructure search committees through the addition of female faculty. This strategy has been very successful in recruiting women to the higher ranks of academia: Six of 10 deans on campus are currently women. The UCI administration has strongly supported the ADVANCE program. Although only eight of 10 schools were initially included in the proposal, the university provided funding for the remaining two (the School of Humanities and the School of Arts). Each of the schools has selected an equity adviser, who monitors and assesses policies and progress in "the development and maintenance of an equitable environment for all faculty" at UCI. The equity advisers have been appointed as faculty assistants to the dean, giving them authority to view confidential material if necessary.

"[Gender inequity] is not a matter of blame but of institutional structure," says Abigail Stewart, the principal investigator of the ADVANCE grant at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Faculty members and administrators at the University of Michigan were already evaluating equity policies, and the NSF award helped legitimize their efforts. And as both Kehoe and Stewart emphasize: "Money helps!" The ADVANCE award has opened doors (and ears) and provided investigators with administrative assistance to challenge the existing structure.

Specific issues addressed in ADVANCE Institutional Transition Awards are mirrored in the feedback on the POWRE program: faculty mentoring programs, dual-career hiring programs, pay-equity studies, strengthening family-friendly practices, campus climate initiatives, and more. Self-evaluation, before and after the program implementation, is a crucial component of most proposals.

Will the change be sustainable beyond the funding period? Time will tell. NSF's goal is for these institutions to become role models for the many academic institutions in this country and abroad, making gender equity the norm.


  • V. Valian, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women (The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999).

  • S. V. Rosser and E. O'Neil Lane, Key barriers for academic institutions seeking to retain women scientists and engineers: Family unfriendly policies, low numbers, stereotypes, and harassment. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 8(2), 163-191 (2002).

  • Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science, A study on the status of women faculty in science at MIT. MIT Faculty Newsletter 11 (1999).

  • Acknowledgments

    I would like to thank the following people for their support while writing this article: Jeannette Doeller, Susan Allen, Enid Keyser, and Olaf Kutsch. For sharing their time and thoughts about this issue, I also would like to thank Sue V. Rosser, Priscilla Kehoe, Abigail Stewart, Alice Hogan, and Bonney Sheahan.

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