Letters to the Editor

At a Small College, Female Chemists Reach a Tipping Point

April 11, 2012

To the Editor:

"Gender Equity on Science Faculties Might Have to Wait a Century, Study Finds" (The Chronicle, February 16) describes the findings of recent studies published in Science and American Scientist related to the proportion and retention of women faculty in science and engineering. While this and other research leaves little doubt that the progress toward gender equity in STEM disciplines remains slow at many major institutions, progress in hiring women can accelerate.

The chemistry department here at Union College has 10 tenure-track faculty lines, seven of which are held by women. We also have two lecturers in the department, both of whom are women.

Union College did not admit female students until 1970. Two decades later, there were only two tenure-track women faculty members in the chemistry department. The fact that we now have nine women chemists represents a noteworthy trajectory. In fact, we can see a "tipping point" after which progress accelerated. In 1980, we had just one tenure-track female chemist; in 1990, two; and in 2000, three. But between 2000 and 2010, the number doubled to six.

When female chemists looking at Union see several senior female faculty members with impressive teaching and research records, along with children's photos and artwork on the walls of male and female faculty members' offices, they get the strong impression that Union is a place where they, too, can flourish both professionally and personally. Once we reached "critical mass"—in this case, roughly one-third of the department—the pace of change was no longer linear. At that point, our commitment to diversity in hiring practices and our faculty mentoring activities, which have been enhanced with support from the National Science Foundation's Advance program, started to pay off much more quickly.

Progress may not always be swift. But a few significant wins can help tip the scale and create the momentum for lasting change.

Mary K. Carroll
Professor of Chemistry

Therese A. McCarty
Dean of the Faculty
Union College
Schenectady, N.Y.