Sarah J. Morrison

Sarah J. Morrison sits in her office in Kemper Hall.

Women made up 28% of all workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics occupations in 2010, according to the National Science Foundation. Recently, Missouri State has been taking steps to reduce the stigma around women in STEM fields in a variety of ways, specifically through research.

This August, Missouri State received the National Science Foundation grant to study and promote gender equity in STEM fields. The grant awarded $228,616 to the university for research over the next two years. The university will focus its studies on women faculty members in STEM departments.

According to a University Communications press release, there are three main goals for the grant: identify barriers for women faculty, formulate equity strategies for a successful change and develop a five-year equity plan for STEM departments.

Five individuals make up the research team, including Provost and principal investigator Frank Einhellig, Dean of the College of Natural and Applied Sciences Tamera Jahnke, Associate Dean of CNAS Jorge Rebaza-Vasquez, geography instructor Melanie Carden-Jessen and electrical engineering professor Theresa Odun-Ayo.

“I am looking forward to working with my team to develop strategies that advance gender opportunities in STEM areas at Missouri State,” Einhellig said.

The research project is begining with an internal self-assessment, including the analyzation of reappointment, promotion and tenure documents, to understand any barriers for women that exist. The grant also provides money for travel, allowing project investigators to visit or host others from universities who have conducted similar research.

“We could go to institutions that are maybe two steps ahead of us and go ask them questions or we could bring people here to Missouri State that are maybe two steps ahead of us and say, ‘Okay, what worked on your campus? What didn’t work on your campus?’” Jahnke said.

Jahnke, a co-investigator for the project, will focus her beginning work on connecting with assistant professors and graduate students in different departments through forums as a part of self-assessment.

Currently, the project team is in their first stage of work, including regular meetings about plans for research. They have not yet pinpointed a specific list of areas they wish to look over and fix, but a few stand out to Jahnke. 

“I think there are probably some issues that we could figure out and be smarter about, like maternity leaves for faculty,” Jahnke said. “We could be better and more transparent about that. There’s not consistently available childcare for faculty on campus, nor students. That one is a tough one for working women who may need emergency childcare.”

Physics, astronomy and materials science assistant professor Sarah Morrison has been employed with the university since August and said she has not experienced gender bias since her arrival. Although in the past during her higher education, she said people were not overtly biased toward her, however, she did experience a few instances where she noticed gender played a role in her work.

She said those instances included having contributions she made to a project downplayed or accidentally attributed to a senior male colleague and having an instructor belittle her for asking a “stupid” question which was happily answered a few minutes later when asked by a male student.

“In my experience, having positive or negative social experiences in class or work comes down to whether or not people in the minority, not necessarily just in terms of gender, are welcomed versus merely tolerated by the majority,” Morrison said.

Looking forward to Missouri State’s involvement with the National Science Foundation grant, Morrison described addressing equity among faculty in STEM programs as a “win-win.”

“It not only benefits folks that experience more structural and social barriers during their career, but also having those folks here and their contributions to this community benefit everyone, too,” Morrison said.

If the university’s five-year plan appears to be successful, a second grant may be awarded to help fund the installation of the research.

“Although this National Science Foundation is focused on science, math, engineering, technology, ultimately I think this will help everyone from all the way across campus,” Jahnke said. “It won’t matter the discipline.”