March 24, 2019 | 47° F

Rutgers organization tackles gender inequality in science

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SciWomen aims to help increase the number of women earning degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematical fields.

In 2012, less than 23 percent of master's degrees awarded in engineering and 35.9 percent in physical sciences were to women, according to the National Science Foundation.

A group of women at Rutgers recognizes this inequality and organized the Office for Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering and Mathematics, also known as "SciWomen."

The group aims to tackle the inequality through a support system for women, said Natalie Batmanian, a former Rutgers graduate student and the current director of SciWomen.

There are many women receiving doctoral degrees in the sciences, but the ratio of male to female employees decreases as they progress to higher positions, she said.

“You enter the workforce with about an even gender representation but you are being evaluated differently from male colleagues so you’re not getting as many promotions, raises, accolades or awards and so men outpace you by the time you get to top positions,” she said.

The mission of the SciWomen office is to serve faculty who are underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The office was founded 10 years ago by Joan Bennett, senior faculty advisor of SciWomen, Batmanian said.

“Our approach is to alleviate isolation, which is one of the biggest factors in people’s lives, as they are the sole women in the department," she said. "We also offer programs for skill building, leadership, mentorship or communication skills. They’re typically packaged into a program with multiple elements.”

These programs help faculty set attainable goals for themselves so that they get to those points of success more quickly and advance in their career, she said.

The office receives a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the NSF ADVANCE program. This program is geared toward “increasing the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers,” and grants are given to certain institutions to attain this goal, according to their website.

Institutions have certain measures in place to help people network with one another and learn from each other. These measures include data, programs, workshops, policy change, policy improvement and conferences through the year, Batmanian said.

The institutions have assessment components in place to understand the social impact of a specific intervention. The NSF wants to see  programs actually making a difference and the University working with social scientists to obtain and interpret that data, she said.

They then share that knowledge with the community at yearly conferences where they discuss certain programs that worked well and ones that didn’t, she said. Like every other academic environment, there is a scholarly inquiry in place to help implement these programs.

“Like students, faculty find themselves lost and kind of helpless facing certain challenges, so giving each other support in that way helps (get) over those hurdles," she said. "So it’s not all that different when students are grouped together in living-learning communities with similar sensibilities whether it’s law or business.”

Typically, universities create these programs after receiving NSF funding, but SciWomen was created at Rutgers using other grants, Batmanian said.

In the beginning it was thought of as a waste of time — a tea-time for women to come and gossip. But today we are recognized in the community and our resources are respected and recommended,” she said.

When they first started, people were reluctant to participate because of the pressure on them to be productive, she said. Over time, those people recognized the value of the program to their productivity, and participation increased.

There is now funding from the University to extend the program to non-science and male faculty.

“What we may say colloquially is that a rising tide lifts all boats. Seeing the effectiveness of this program with women, our institution and others, are extending the program to all faculty,” she said. “The academics have a demanding job and to do that job well, professional development programs help.”

Batmanian stresses the importance of mentors, as being immersed in a community of mentors will only help advance people in their careers, she said. These mentors can act as a support system and aid in vital work. It is also important to recognize that it is alright to ask for help, she said.

“You as a young professional, always take the time to recognize your needs as a human being," she said. "To succeed as women in a career, we need to realize that we cannot do it alone, we need to do it as a community."


Madhuri Bhupathiraju is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @madhuri448 for more.

Madhuri Bhupathiraju

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