Launched in 2018, ADVANCE-VCU aims to reduce structural and cultural barriers that hinder the diversification of faculty and by attracting more women to academic science and engineering careers at VCU. Getty Images.
Launched in 2018, ADVANCE-VCU aims to reduce structural and cultural barriers that hinder the diversification of faculty and by attracting more women to academic science and engineering careers at VCU. Getty Images.

VCU project serves as national model to expand female STEM faculty recruitment and retention

ADVANCE-VCU aims to help reduce structural and cultural barriers that hinder the diversification of faculty by attracting more women to academic science and engineering careers.

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In 2018, the National Science Foundation awarded a nearly $3 million grant to a team of interdisciplinary women at Virginia Commonwealth University to transform VCU in ways that would diversify its faculty in STEM fields and beyond.

Now, nearly four years later, the project — called ADVANCE-VCU — has had a significant impact on VCU’s recruitment, retention and advancement of female STEM faculty across intersecting identities by initiating structural and cultural change.

“It is very rewarding to work with the more than 100 faculty, staff and administrators from across the university who are involved in the grant, all of whom share the goal of increasing faculty diversity,” said ADVANCE-VCU principal investigator and executive director Susan G. Kornstein, M.D., a professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine and executive director of the VCU Institute for Women's Health. “We are excited that VCU has joined other ADVANCE institutions across the nation that are models for developing innovative strategies to recruit, retain and advance women faculty in STEM.”

Women make up nearly half of the U.S. working population, but less than a quarter of STEM jobs. The project aims to help address that by reducing structural and cultural barriers that hinder the diversification of faculty and by attracting more women to academic science and engineering careers at VCU.

As chair of the project's external advisory board, VCU Vice President for Administration Meredith Weiss described ADVANCE-VCU as transformational. "The voices and thought leadership of brilliant, innovative and diverse women matter," said Weiss. "We must be deliberate in removing barriers to women’s success in academic science and engineering careers. Their unique perspectives and achievements enhance our collective quality of life."

The project has three focus areas: cultural change, policies and procedures change, and faculty development, along with six initiatives aimed at increasing recruitment, retention and advancement of diverse female faculty in STEM fields at VCU.

Cultural change

The cultural change team — led by co-principal investigator and project deputy director Maike Philipsen, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Education — is responsible for implementing two initiatives: one focused on strengthening recruitment and retention processes to hire and retain female STEM faculty, and the other, the Immunity to Change facilitators program.

The Immunity to Change program trains facilitators who are deployed across VCU to conduct workshops on the process, which is designed to bring about individual and organizational change by identifying and addressing hidden barriers to diversifying faculty. So far, facilitators have led 16 workshops across VCU, including in STEM departments, search committees and more.

Denise Burnette, Ph.D., the Samuel S. Wurtzel Professor of Social Work, served on a search committee in the School of Social Work that received Immunity to Change training.

“[It] provided our search committee with an invaluable opportunity to achieve a very diverse pool of applicants for an administrative/faculty position in our school,” she said. “Our participation highlighted the added value of having well-trained individuals who are unfamiliar with the dynamics of one’s own group to bring such important issues into focus and to the fore.”

Penelope McFarline, co-chair of the Immunity to Change facilitators program and an organizational development specialist in the Learning, Development and Organizational Culture department in VCU Human Resources, said she has seen firsthand how much impact the training can have.

“I’ve seen groups, in less than an hour, first reveal and then talk together about profound things, such as underlying assumptions that prevented them from recruiting and retaining more diverse faculty or staff,” she said. “This is the power of [Immunity to Change]. The facilitative approach helps groups to see what they didn't know was there: the hidden reasons for why they'd become stuck. Then they can take and fully invest in the next steps towards long-lasting and meaningful change.”

VCU is one of a number of institutions to receive funding from the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program, which aims to increase the representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers, contributing to the development of a more diverse science and engineering workforce.

The ADVANCE-VCU team has presented the Immunity to Change program at national meetings of ADVANCE institutions as a model that could be replicated to realize cultural change in academia.

Policy and procedures

Leading ADVANCE-VCU’s policy and procedures change program team is Jill Gordon, Ph.D., interim senior vice provost for faculty affairs and a professor in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

One of the team’s initiatives aims to strengthen promotion and tenure policies, procedures and practices by working on adjusting the tenure clock, providing input on promotion criteria for term faculty, addressing barriers to promotion from associate to full professor, helping to create a multiyear action plan for promotion and tenure, and using Immunity to Change strategies to address issues related to promotion and tenure.

Another initiative is focused on career-life integration and promoting life-friendly initiatives that enhance recruitment and retention of diverse female faculty in STEM. These include helping to develop policies and procedures that provide resources and hiring assistance to spouses or partners of faculty being hired, developing family leave policies and procedures that advocate for family care, providing input to the faculty exit survey, and more.

Faculty development

Barbara Boyan, Ph.D., the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Dean of the College of Engineering and co-principal investigator on the grant, leads ADVANCE-VCU’s faculty development program team.

Included among that team’s initiatives is the establishment of a council of STEM department chairs that meets quarterly to discuss strategies and cultivate peer learning and collaboration for hiring and retaining diverse female faculty.

Another is focused on professional development opportunities for female faculty. This initiative — led by Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the Department of Health Behavior and Policy in the School of Medicine and co-principal investigator on the grant — has created a coaching program for midcareer female STEM faculty focused on promotion and career development. So far, 44 female STEM associate professors have participated. The initiative also sponsors professional development workshops for midcareer female STEM faculty, with two sessions presented last fall and two scheduled for this semester.

ADVANCE-VCU’s next event, “Insights and Intention: Women Leaders in Academia,” will be held Friday, Feb. 25, from 9 to 11 a.m. Sponsored in partnership with the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence and the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute, the event will feature a conversation with female STEM deans who will share their journey to leadership and success in academia. A keynote presentation with Stephanie G. Adams, Ph.D., of the University of Texas at Dallas, will be followed by a panel discussion with VCU deans Jennifer Malat, Ph.D., of the College of Humanities and SciencesJean Giddens, Ph.D., of the School of Nursing; and Susan Parish, Ph.D., of the College of Health Professions.