Bringing Them Back

U. of Washington aims to boost number of female professors in STEM fields by recruiting those in industry.
May 17, 2011

Increasing the ranks of women faculty members in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines has become an area of intense focus for academe in recent years, and attempts to boost these numbers have focused on everything from probing the barriers at individual institutions to encouraging more girls, while they are still in school, to consider careers in these fields.

The organizers of the On-Ramps into Academia workshop taking place Monday and today at the University of Washington have taken a different approach: encouraging and coaching talented and accomplished women to leave their positions in private industry and return to campus.

The workshops, and accompanying mentoring and advice, actually address two problems for academe at the same time, said Matthew O’Donnell, dean of Washington’s College of Engineering. "Like everywhere, we work hard to retain women faculty and we want more faculty with real world experience,” he said. “To me, this is a double-win."

The effort at Washington is notable because it seeks to woo back scientists who may, in turn, serve as role models for younger women about to consider their career options. Some experts on women in science have warned that industry has been attracting talented women away from academe. Many of these women may have left the academic track because of a lack of opportunity, or because they wanted to avoid the insecurity of tenure-seeking while starting a family.

Washington's program is still fairly young and operating on a small scale (and organizers want to attract more participants). The current round of workshops is the second of three; the first took place in 2009. But organizers have been pleased with the results so far: 45 women in total have attended the first two workshops, and four have secured full-time faculty positions, while two or three others are working as adjuncts, said Eve Riskin, professor of electrical engineering at Washington, who is the principal investigator on the project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Riskin did not personally make the switch from industry to academe, but said she was inspired to start the workshops after noting that colleagues in neighboring departments -- including O’Donnell, who worked for General Electric before moving to the University of Michigan -- had made the transition very effectively.

Many times, those who have worked in industry bring skills and experiences with them that are not as well-developed within higher education, said Joyce W. Yen, program and research manager of Washington’s ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change. For example, those from private industry have gained experience managing projects and people in ways that are different from the methods practiced at universities. “In academia you just see one model, which is the model you did with your Ph.D. adviser,” said Yen. “In industry you get to import those ideas into your academic career.”

Riskin said those who work in industry but are active in professional associations, have their own research labs, and are interested in teaching seem to make promising recruits to come back into academe. “They look like faculty, but don’t have the faculty title,” she said. “Those are the most obvious slam dunks.”

Several of those who have made the transition (and were participating in the workshop) described similar reasons for doing so -- and the sometimes unexpectedly difficult challenges involved in negotiating two very different cultures.

Teaching is more difficult than it appears from the outside, several said, and the slow pace of academe can be maddening. “What takes a year in an academic setting would take a month in an industrial setting,” said O’Donnell.

Many of those who switched said they much preferred the work/life flexibility that faculty life can offer. Some said they relished having the chance to attend a child’s soccer game while choosing the 50 to 60 hours per week they work.

But, at the same time, a teaching schedule is more unforgiving than a 9-to-5 work schedule can be, said Debra Wallace, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of South Carolina at Beaufort, who got her new position after attending the last On-Ramps workshop as a government researcher.

“While my time is much more flexibly scheduled in general, those teaching times are pretty much time you can’t be sick and you can’t miss,” she said. Last year, Wallace fought a bad flu, but soldiered through it in order to honor her class commitments. In the workplace it would have been simpler to just call in sick, she said.

The shift in expectations, resources (both human and financial), workload and money also struck many of those who made the switch. What they gave up in salary they have gotten back in intellectual freedom. But the work load is, in some cases, worse. “I thought I was working hard when I was working in industry,” said Claire Gmachl, who worked at Bell Laboratories at Lucent Technologies before becoming professor of electrical engineering at Princeton University. “As a professor, I’m working so much harder."

Some women said they had always planned to join the professoriate, but found academic jobs to be more scarce and the environment less hospitable to hiring women than private industry. But many said that what they ultimately prized most about their university jobs was the intellectual and academic freedom to pursue their work.

That has been true for Cecilia Aragon, who two months ago started her job as associate professor of human-centered design and engineering at Washington after working as a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Aragon said she had long wanted to work in academe, and -- after working at Lawrence Berkeley and teaching on the side -- she decided to put herself on the market. She received six offers.

While working for the lab, Aragon said she was able to pursue, up to a point, the research she’s interested in: how humans interact with computers and, particularly, how we struggle to make adequate use of ever-growing mountains of data. But after developing systems and tools for the lab that could be marketed to scientists, Aragon said she saw a need for the development of a larger theory, which would call upon several different disciplines, including mathematics, sociology, technology and psychology.

Such conceptual work did not lend itself easily to manufacturing a discrete product that a company could sell, she said. Now, she’s been able to pursue her interests in what she says is a burgeoning new field. “In industry everything you do gets back to the bottom line,” said Aragon. “The advantage of working in academia is you’re free to move in whatever direction you think is best.”


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