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Change tends to happen at a glacial pace at many universities, but Montana State University is speeding things up when it comes to hiring more women professors, especially in traditionally male-dominated fields like science and engineering.

In just four years, MSU has increased by 10 percentage points the number of tenure-track women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and social sciences (like psychology and political science). Since 2012, the number of women faculty members in those fields has increased from 17.6 percent to 27.9 percent.

When MSU’s entire faculty is considered, the portion of tenure-track women has increased from 34.4 percent to 41.1 percent in four years.

7-year change in percentage of female tenurable faculty at MSU

“We’ve had great progress,” MSU Provost Martha Potvin said during Tuesday’s meeting at Leigh Lounge to present data on hiring trends, staff climate surveys and diversity efforts led by MSU ADVANCE Project TRACS.

MSU is in the fourth year of a five-year, $3.4 million ADVANCE grant from the National Science Foundation to research ways to recruit, keep and advance women in STEM and social science fields.

“Today we celebrate the accomplishments we’ve made, how far we’ve come,” Potvin said. “We want MSU to be an inclusive institution.”

MSU has taken a variety of steps to recruit more women and to make the Bozeman campus more attractive to women candidates, who are trying to start careers and often families at the same time. Potvin said she has made 25 “dual career” hires, finding jobs for both spouses or partners.

One side benefit, Potvin said, is “we’re having a wonderful little baby boom now” because women Ph.D.s feel “we support families.”

For example, MSU changed its policies so that employees who have tons of unused sick leave can donate hours to a campus-wide pool to help colleagues care for a new child, elderly parent or ailing partner, said Sara Rushing, political science professor and co-director of the MSU ADVANCE Project TRACS.

MSU also changed its policy so that the seven-year “tenure clock” is automatically put on hold when a young assistant professor gets pregnant, instead of making her ask for a time extension.

Such policies help both men and women, Potvin said. She said MSU is managing to advance women without reverse discrimination against men. Rushing said the new efforts are increasing job satisfaction for both men and women at MSU.

To help more women win research grants essential for advancing their careers, MSU created a “boot camp” to teach successful grant writing. It is targeted at women in STEM fields, but when there’s room it’s open to all faculty, including men.

After boot camp, women submit more grants, are more likely to apply as the lead investigator and to request more money, Potvin said.

Women feel more successful and loyal to MSU, Rushing said, while MSU benefits from winning more research money.

Back in 1976, five women faculty members sued MSU for discrimination and won. In the Mecklenburg decision, the judge required formal searches for job openings to overcome the informal good-old-boy network and required that at least 25 percent of search committee members be women.

Now 40 years later, the faculty still often reflects traditional gender roles, with females making up only 22.7 percent of College of Engineering and 29 percent of Agriculture faculties, while Nursing is 87.5 percent female.

MSU uses many strategies to hire more women in STEM fields. Search committees are urged to advertise job openings using broad language, because women often won’t apply if they don’t meet every single specific qualification listed. Search committees are urged to call colleagues, ask for the names of outstanding female students and invite them to apply. Committee members are urged to “go back and add one more” woman to the list of candidates at each step of the hiring process.

Sharon Stoneberger, recruitment services manager, said the goal is still “to hire the best qualified candidate.”

Engineering Dean Brett Gunnink said by strengthening the applicant pool, his college has more well-qualified women to choose from. The father of three daughters, Gunnink said that’s been “a big motivator for me. That’s why this needs to change.”

Anne Camper, associate dean, said for many, many years, she was one of only two women professors in engineering.

“That’s dramatically changed,” Camper said. “I like it. Our student body is gender-diverse, too. It’s good to have representation and role models.”

Ian Handley, psychology professor, said the ADVANCE grant is trying to raise awareness that gender bias exists, both nationwide and at MSU. A research abstract or summary published in the respected National Academy of Sciences reported that when applications for a lab manager’s job have the same qualifications but one is given a male name and the other a female name, professors rated the female as less hirable and offered to pay her $4,000 less.

When that abstract was shown to MSU and national faculty members, men in STEM fields rated the research as lower quality than women did, Handley said. “This demonstrates there is a problem.”

Potvin said one of the next targets of the ADVANCE grant will be making MSU’s faculty more racially and ethnically diverse. MSU’s faculty was 91 percent white in 2011; this year that’s down somewhat to 86.7 percent.

“We hope the interventions for women in STEM translate into more diversity,” Potvin said, and will “transform the culture” of MSU.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or


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