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SOU professor helps advance women in STEM field

Southern Oregon University chemistry professor Hala Schepmann will co-direct a $999,899 grant to help advance mid-career women in the STEM fields.

The grant comes from the National Science Foundation as a part of the NSF ADVANCE program.

The project is called “Advancing STEM Careers by Empowering Network Development (ASCEND) and will run through September 2024 and also addresses systematic issues that prevent women from achieving their full potentials in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, according to a press release.

Schepmann said there are many barriers that keep women from progressing in these fields such as the workplace environment, institution environment and implicit bias.

“It’s true that there is a male designed model of professional and academic achievement and its very strictly defined,” Schepmann said. “It creates creative limits and minimizes flexibility.”

She said women STEM faculty leave academia at twice the rate of men in the field, and those who stay do not attain the rank of professor or leadership positions at the same rate as their male counterparts.

“Women make up about 47% of the total STEM academia faculty workforce but hold only 21% of full science professor positions and only 5% full engineering positions,” Schepmann said quoting national data from NSF.

She said the more mathematics involved in the field, the fewer women.

“It really is discipline specific,” Schepmann said. “There’s inequity. The psychology data shows that you need role models. So, to attract women and minorities to these professions, you need role models there. The goal is to have the faculty population mimic the overall population.”

Schepmann said women can offer diversity in these fields where it is currently lacking. She said having diversity and different perspectives is proven to provide faster advancement, better communication and more efficiency across the board.

“It’s not just women,” Schepmann said. “Each of us think in a different way. You always want diversity at all levels.”

She said nationwide only 10% female STEM faculty who hold the rank of associate professor are people of color and less than 4% have the rank of full professor, referencing NSF statistics.

Schepmann said because of these barriers women often drop out of the field before they can attain full professorship, which is why the program focuses specifically on mid-career women.

Other co-directors include professors from Willamette University, Western Oregon University and Gonzaga University in the Northwest; John Carroll University and University of Detroit Mercy in the Midwest; and Claflin University, Furman University and the Citadel in the Southeast.

Schepmann said the grant she and fellow university professors applied for was inspired by a previous ADVANCE grant they had participated in.

She said the cohort participating in the previous grant became so close that they found that having a neutral network outside of the institution they worked in helped them progress their careers and allowed them to create change on their campuses. They all have since attained full professor rank and leadership roles.

After sending out a survey to various institutions asking for interest in participation, she said the cohort received an overwhelming response from women all over the country.

So, for the full funding they were able to receive the program will begin in the three regions, but the hope is that each participating institution will become a resource for institutions who are not participating. She said there will soon be a call out for more institutions to participate than the ones mentioned so far.

She said they made it a point to include a diversity of institutions including rural, urban, military and historically African American attended.

These co-directors at each participating institution will lead the project that will include as many as 75 participants. They’ll create peer mentoring networks in each of the three regions participating. Network members will meet online monthly and in person yearly to identify barriers to their professional advancement and strategies to address them.

Each regional network will include an administrator alliance made up of four to five academic leaders and five faculty alliances with a STEM-specific academic discipline.

Schepmann said this is critical to creating a nationwide change for women in the STEM fields because it is going to take policy change and adaption unique to each campus to help women advance in their careers and the administrative alliances are key to those policy changes.

The project’s summary states that “administrators will strategically design and implement comprehensive campus-specific change plans that reduce barriers encountered by women in STEM fields, create more equitable community and foster the retention and advancement of a diverse STEM faculty population.”

Schepmann said staff and faculty at SOU have been very receptive to these changes. So far, they’ve created a Hardship Leave Policy between faculty that helps financially if someone takes maternity leave or has a long leave of absence due to illness.

She said they’ve also created a faculty ombuds office which is a neutral place for faculty to bring their concerns they might not normally be able to bring to department heads for fear of consequence, a tenure clock extension, a dual career support practice, increased the number of lactation rooms and created a faculty mentoring program.

SOU academic affairs vice president Susan Walsh said she couldn’t be more pleased that Schepmann received the grant.

“This award acknowledges Hala’s substantial commitment to increasing the advancement of women in science and paves the way for SOU to continue to make a significant contribution to this important work,” Walsh said.

This grant is the second prestigious NSF grant awarded to SOU faculty this fall. The fist was a two-year $299,000 grant to develop the computational thinking skills of kindergarten-fifth grade students led by Eva Skuratowics, director of the SOU Research Center.

SOU spokesman Joe Mosley said this is quite the honor for the university and really speaks to the hardworking faculty.

“The NSF grants are very prestigious, and it’s kind of a big deal whenever we get one,” Mosley said. “For us to have a couple of them right here at the beginning of the school year is really indicative of the great academics we have at work here.”

Schepmann said the objective is to create equality but also have students relate to their instructors.

“Having women in leadership positions will naturally help the system improve because it impacts your thinking that it is reachable,” Schepmann said.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Photo courtesy of SOUSouthern Oregon University chemistry professor Hala Schepmann will co-direct a National Science Foundation grant of just under $1 million to help support women in the STEM field.