Mitchneck is a 2015-2016 Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.
Recent op-eds include:
U.S. News, 3/28/16
Huffington Post, 2/15/16
Foreign Affairs, 1/22/15
Beth Mitchneck, professor in the University of Arizona School of Geography and Development, is lead author on a Policy Perspectives article in Science on gender equity and institutional transformation. The goal of the article is not only to encourage structural changes to university work environments to improve the representation of female professors in STEM fields, but also to advance science and create a more inclusive workplace both within and outside academia where everyone can be successful.
In “A Recipe for Change: Creating a More Inclusive Academy,” published on April 8, 2016, the authors argue that “broad participation of women from all backgrounds in academic STEM will not be achieved until institutions are transformed.”
With co-authors Jessi Smith, professor of psychology at Montana State University, and Melissa Latimer, professor of sociology at West Virginia University, Mitchneck presents a six-part plan organized under the headings of 1) learn the social science research; 2) leaders must understand the context and be accountable for diversity and inclusion; 3) seek external catalyzing resources; 4) focus at the department level; 5) collect and publicly share data; and 6) policy change is critical.
Mitchneck says that challenges for female academics exist in all disciplines but are particularly pronounced in STEM fields, which are dogged by “scientists are men” stereotypes and often hold a more traditional disciplinary culture, including expectations on which journals to publish in and how much time to spend in the lab.
Mitchneck has extensive experience with this topic. In 2006, Mitchneck co-wrote and was co-PI of a five-year, $3.3 million ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Grant awarded to the UA from the National Science Foundation (NSF) aimed at increasing the participation and advancement of women in science and engineering careers. Between 2012 and 2014, Mitchneck was the lead program director of ADVANCE for the NSF.
Mitchneck, whose research focuses on migration and displaced populations with an emphasis on Russia and Georgia, also has held numerous administrative positions at the UA, including Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Inclusion of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and co-chair of the UA’s reaccreditation.
In many STEM fields, the low number of female professors cannot be attributed to a shortage of female graduate students. Mitchneck cites the field of biology, where more women than men are earning doctorates yet women comprised 36 percent of assistant professors and only 27 percent of tenure candidates in a 2010 study by the U.S. National Research Council.
According to the U.S. National Science Foundation, women comprise only 21 percent of full professors in science fields and five percent of full professors in engineering despite earning about half the doctorates in science and engineering in the United States.
Mitchneck said the problem does not stem from these graduates not being hired as assistant professors, but is related to the need for changes in the academic workplace.
“There are a lot of different incentives for universities to hire women or minorities,” said Mitchneck. “But then they haven’t changed the conditions under which they work. And that becomes the fundamental problem.”
Subtle biases, some more hidden than others, permeate the system, which is why the authors recommend that the campus community read the relevant social science research to arm themselves with an “understanding of the myriad ways in which bias contributes to stereotype threat, belonging uncertainty, work-life imbalance, and a host of other negative outcomes.”
Mitchneck recalls a male professor from a STEM field complaining that a female colleague was not committed to her science because she often left the office at 3 p.m. Mitchneck, who had her own history of leaving the office early to pick up her kids from school and then working at home until 11 p.m., questioned the man’s underlying assumption that this woman was not being productive because she wasn’t physically in the office or lab. This assumption of being less committed once you have children does not fall equally on male professors, Mitchneck asserts.
Mitchneck said that in departments and committees, female professors are often allocated the “housekeeping” work, time-intensive tasks that do little in the way of advancing the professors’ careers.
Subtle bias also comes from students, who are more likely to call female professors by their first name and question their expertise, Mitchneck said. This bias from students, which might seem less pernicious than bias from those in power positions, can also have negative consequences.
“There is a lot of evidence that shows that women and minority faculty get lower teaching evaluations than white men,” Mitchneck said. “And many universities use teaching evaluations when deciding salary raises and promotions.”
The authors recommend a reevaluation of the fairness of the promotion and tenure process (P&T). “P&T policies as they currently stand are inflexible and are often reduced to a mathematical formula of publications, external funding, and impact factors. This reductionist evaluation can hurt women faculty, who, for example, are often drawn to collaborative teams and interdisciplinary research.”
Mitchneck notes that although team-based science is important for innovation, it takes longer to complete and may result in fewer publications and solo-author papers.
The importance of gender equity in higher education doesn’t end at the institution’s walls, Mitchneck emphasizes. Science suffers because of the underrepresentation and slow advancement of women scientists and engineers. Research shows that creativity and innovation in teams is bolstered by introducing various perspectives and that women and minorities investigate topics that would not otherwise have been studied.
“If we’re excluding half the population from being full partners in the scientific enterprise, then we as a society lose out,” Mitchneck said.
In the Science article, Mitchneck and her co-authors focus on women professors in STEM fields but say their plan has implications for other groups: “Changes that bring about inclusion for one group, we argue, can have far-reaching benefits for everyone.”
Nor is their advice meant only for universities.
“As a society, we are dealing with these types of issues not only in higher education, but also in the corporate world and in scientific industries,” Mitchneck said. “This a phenomenal opportunity for us to work together to solve these problems that are really important for society at large and for the coming generation. I know I want my daughters to come into a workforce that is more equitable for them than it is now.”
School of Geography and Development