Helping Women ADVANCE in STEM

Initiatives at Syracuse University could serve as models for supporting and encouraging women in STEM fields.

For the first 15 years of her time as a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Syracuse University in New York, Shobha K. Bhatia was the only female faculty member in its College of Engineering & Computer Science. By 1997, she and her women colleagues comprised only six percent of the college’s faculty roster. It’s not an uncommon situation: A study by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, examining faculty diversity at U.S. universities, found that in the 2015-2016 academic year, women accounted for 18.1 to 31.1 percent of faculty in STEM fields. STEM is an acronym for the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Informed by her experience of working without a network of women peers, Bhatia knew what needed to be done. In 1999, she and her colleague, Cathryn R. Newton, then-chair of the Department of Earth Sciences at the university, co-facilitated its Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) initiative, which still serves the university’s women in STEM.

WiSE began with three key goals in mind, which continue to drive the project. They are: To increase representation of women in STEM fields and to increase their job retention in these disciplines; to highlight women STEM scholars through a lecture series; and to provide advising and mentoring programs to women at all levels of study—undergraduate, graduate, postdoctorate and faculty. The program is faculty-led, and has achieved great success. 

“I’m very proud of the WiSE program,” says Bhatia. “It is very useful for students, not only because they need to do excellent academic work, but they also need to develop certain soft skills, like communication skills, to be successful. Through mentoring, they learn these collaborative skills; how to work with teams as leaders and members. Through programs at WiSE, we talk about these things, and they have a chance to write and speak about their experiences, which is something we don’t typically see in science and engineering, in particular,” she adds.

In 2010, Bhatia and her WiSE colleagues received a $3.4 million [Rs. 24 crores approximately] grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) for the ADVANCE Institutional Transformation collaborative agreement, commonly known as SU ADVANCE. The SU ADVANCE initiative enabled Syracuse University to focus on several aspects of women’s educational and professional experiences. For instance, the university directed its efforts toward recruiting more women faculty in STEM, especially those from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, as well as women with disabilities. It worked to build networks for women STEM faculty, connecting them with each other and to mentors, research centers and the campus resources needed to ensure their progress toward tenure and full professorships. Faculty had access to one-on-one coaching and skill-building workshops. SU ADVANCE provided support for cross-sector research, extending opportunities to other university departments and industry researchers. Finally, the initiative focused heavily on institutional change at the level of male-female equity and female inclusion. It engaged male faculty as partners and provided resources for researching and gaining understanding of the career experiences of men and women in STEM, including how social network ties influence career outcomes.

The results were outstanding.

“When the SU ADVANCE initiative started, we only had about 49 women faculty in STEM at the university. By the time we finished, we had 100 women faculty in the STEM areas,” says Bhatia. “We recruited some very bright young women. Many people were promoted. All of them were connected. People now know each other and they work together writing proposals and grants, and serve each other as mentors.”

Based on the success of SU ADVANCE, Bhatia and her WiSE colleagues are now working on mitigating the disparity between the representation of men and women in STEM fields. 

“We’ve made a lot of improvement in the last 20 years with programs like SU ADVANCE or WiSE, but we still can’t say, demographically, things are equal,” says Bhatia. “There’s still a significant gap in certain areas of STEM, like in mechanical, aerospace and civil engineering. These undergraduate programs have, on average, 20 to 25 percent women, and that number has not gone up. In environmental engineering or biology, women undergrads make up 30 to 40 percent now. But, at the graduate or faculty level, that percentage goes down to 10 percent.”

Bhatia hopes that the work they have done through SU ADVANCE, and are continuing to do through WiSE, will become models for other universities. WiSE has launched a program for undergraduate women of color. The initiative is critical, says Bhatia, as “we lose these students because they are a very small number and they need mentoring.” She emphasizes that the university wants to recruit women of color, and also retain and promote them. 

It’s a mission that Bhatia thinks is possible to accomplish.

“I’m very happy that for the next couple of years, we will be able to continue these programs at Syracuse University, because of our track record and ongoing support from our upper administration,” she says. “I would next like to see these programs at a national level.”


Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.