Joanne Smieja holds a B.A. and a Ph.D. in chemistry. She grew up on a dairy farm in central Minnesota, the ninth of 11 children, and was the second to earn a college degree. In 2013, she will celebrate her 25th year of teaching chemistry at Gonzaga. And she still remembers when, as an undergraduate student, her academic adviser, a male, suggested that majoring in chemistry may be “too difficult for a young lady.”
Today, thanks to a five-year grant of nearly $600,000 from the National Science Foundation, Smieja is spearheading a nationwide effort to enhance mentoring and advancement opportunities for female faculty who teach in the traditionally male-dominated disciplines of STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
“Nationally, the percentage of women who pursue tenure-track positions is around 30 percent, which is growing but is still too low,” Smieja said. “We’ve found that while many women may accept tenure-track positions, they don’t stay. One barrier could be the isolation they experience due to working in small departments where they are either the only woman or one of very few.”
The grant includes 70 female faculty members from 12 universities across the country, organized by both the discipline they teach and where they are in their career: early, midcareer or senior. What makes this approach so innovative is its mentoring approach. Women in the early stages of their careers meet with women from the disciplines of chemistry, biology, math, physics, computer science and engineering. Female faculty from the same discipline will meet with others who are either just starting, halfway through, or at the senior levels of their professional careers.
“Women will be able to meet and discuss within their own alliances as well as benefit from cross-fertilization of ideas across all disciplines,” said Smieja.
In total, there are 134 STEM women faculty at the 12 participating universities, who teach and influence more than 25,000 female undergraduates. By holding their gatherings in conjunction with national organization meetings for the Council on Undergraduate Research, the American Association of Colleges & Universities, and Project Kaleidoscope, attendance and involvement in the grant study should be healthy and valuable.
The grant has been more than three years in the making, and Smieja credits Gonzaga colleague Joann Waite, director of the Sponsored Research and Programs office, for making the grant a reality. Waite reached out to her colleagues across the country to assess the level of interest in collaborating with Gonzaga on this type of grant. The response was overwhelming.
“I contacted Joanne to let her know there was definitely interest out there, and we pulled a strategy together,” Waite said. “Not only will this grant provide invaluable support and mentoring for STEM women faculty across the country, but also to the students they teach.”
Smieja recalls when she was the only woman in Gonzaga’s chemistry department, and looks forward to improving the academic culture for women in the future. “If we can affect how women feel about the work they are doing – if we can provide support to them – they will become more self-confident and successful in what they are doing, which will encourage more women to pursue similar paths.”