$3M grant will greatly expand STEM female faculty recruitment, retention and advancement at VCU

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The National Science Foundation has awarded a $2.99 million grant to an interdisciplinary team of faculty women leaders at Virginia Commonwealth University that will increase the recruitment, retention and advancement of STEM female faculty across the university.

The grant, “Overcoming Immunity to Change: ADVANCE IT VCU,” led by Montse Fuentes, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, has the goal of raising the participation and advancement of women in academic science, technology, engineering and math careers by initiating systematic change throughout VCU’s institutional structure and culture.

“ADVANCE IT VCU will decrease structural and cultural barriers that prevent the diversification and advancement of faculty in STEM fields and it will infuse great energy into VCU, an institution already primed to achieve inclusive excellence,” said Fuentes, who is also a professor in the Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research. “It will transform VCU in ways that will effectively and systematically diversify its faculty.”

VCU exceeds the national averages for STEM women across an array of measures, according to NSF data. And the university is among the most diverse higher education institutions in Virginia, measured by key student demographics such as gender, race and ethnicity. However, Fuentes said, VCU has insufficiently increased the number of diverse women faculty moving into advanced ranks, and faculty question what VCU can do for work-life compatibility.

“VCU’s challenges are not unique. Change-resistant cultures are widespread despite change strategies aimed directly at these challenges,” Fuentes said. “With this grant, we will identify the structural and cultural elements that are preventing us from actually transforming our institution.”

Along with Fuentes, the project includes co-principal investigators from VCU’s School of MedicineCollege of EngineeringSchool of Education and Division for Inclusive Excellence. The leadership team includes:

Specifically, the project will involve strengthening VCU’s recruitment processes, while bolstering career-life integration policies and practices, improving promotion and tenure policies, procedures and practices, and facilitating professional development opportunities for women of intersecting identities at all ranks.

“This approach to bolster change strategies so they become transformative will serve as a model for other research institutions striving to diversity their faculties,” Fuentes said.

The grant will help VCU achieve the desired outcomes expressed in both the university’s Quest 2025: Together We Transform strategic plan and the Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Action Plan, Hargraves said.

“The recruitment, retention and success of a diverse faculty in the STEM disciplines and beyond are crucial to achieving the goals stated in those plans,” she said. “We believe by examining our immunities to change, we will be able to directly affect both the institutional and cultural barriers that hinder us achieving the outcomes we envision possible for our great university.”

The grant was awarded through the NSF’s ADVANCE program, which aims to develop systemic approaches to increase the participation and advancement of women in academic STEM careers.

“NSF has had a long-standing commitment to increasing the number of women in STEM careers,” Boyan said. “We are excited to have their support as VCU advances women as role models for our students. Men and women colleagues at universities who have had NSF ADVANCE grants all report that the programs enhance the academic lives of all faculty.”  

Kornstein said the team is excited that VCU will be part of the program.

“Institutions with ADVANCE IT grants serve as national models of transformative approaches to increasing the representation and advancement of diverse women in academic science and engineering careers and to promoting gender equity,” Kornstein said. “We are thrilled that VCU will be a part of the NSF ADVANCE program.”

Peter Buckley, M.D., VCU Health executive vice president for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, added: “The ADVANCE IT grant will also build on our long-standing, award-winning Women in Science, Dentistry and Medicine (WISDM) program, which has inspired many under the leadership of Dr. Kornstein and other female faculty at VCU.”

Women make up nearly half of the U.S. working population, but hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs. Attracting and retaining more women in the academic science and engineering careers will maximize creativity, innovation and competitiveness, Fuentes said.

“Scientists and engineers are working to solve some of the most difficult challenges of our time, and engineers design many of the things we use daily,” Fuentes said. “When women are not involved in engineering and science, the needs, experiences, desires that are unique to women may easily be overlooked."

“With a more diverse STEM representation, scientific and technological products and solutions will be better designed to represent all users, and the direction of science and scientific inquiry will be guided by a broader array of experiences,” she added.

Additionally as part of the ADVANCE IT VCU project, Condit and Johnson will co-direct the Social Science Research Project. The project, an independent social science design that runs parallel with the larger grant, will discover innovative, new knowledge about gender equity and the intersectional issues at the heart of gender and other identities for those in STEM academic careers.

The grant, which is highly competitive, will have benefits even beyond STEM faculty, Philipsen said, and will be transformative across the university.

“This grant is transformative for an entire university, going beyond STEM disciplines,” Philipsen said. “No transformative change can be partial. You can’t just transform a university by initiating and sustaining change in a part of it. In order for it to be truly transformative, as interconnected and linked as we are across disciplines and departments, it really does need to include the entire university.”