News Release

PSU to do internal deep dive to identify systemic inequalities among STEM faculty

Grant and Award Announcement

Portland State University

The numbers don't lie: Women and minorities have historically, and continue to be, underrepresented in STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- and it's no different at Portland State.

Beyond the numbers is a more complicated picture of why some faculty stay and others leave. Results from a 2018 workplace climate survey point to serious and entrenched equity issues for women faculty and faculty of color in STEM at PSU, but a group of faculty say a more nuanced understanding of systemic inequalities is needed to help drive institutional change. Now they have the funding to take that closer look.

The project team -- led by Eva Thanheiser, professor of mathematics education; Jola Ajibade, assistant professor of geography; Gina Greco, professor of French; Larry Martinez, associate professor of psychology; and Lisa Weasel, a biologist and professor of women, gender and sexuality studies -- will take a deep dive into the data and stories of STEM faculty, thanks to a new $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's ADVANCE Program's "Catalyst" track.

The ADVANCE program provides grants to enhance the factors that support equity and inclusion and mitigate the systemic causes of inequities in the academic profession and workplaces.

"I am grateful that this impressive and thoughtful proposal by PSU faculty was selected for funding," said PSU Provost Susan Jeffords. "I have been a part of ADVANCE grants at previous institutions and I know how truly impactful they are. This is a pivotal opportunity for Portland State."

PSU's "Catalyst" project aims to identify, understand and improve the workplace experiences and retention of faculty in STEM fields who have been traditionally marginalized based on gender, race/ethnicity and other intersectional identities through an innovative approach to data collection, analysis and visualization. This self-assessment will then lay the foundation for the next phase of work: systemic and campus-wide implementation of a five-year strategic equity plan.

Thanheiser says numbers don't tell the whole story. For example, she and Ajibade both come from departments where they are just one of two tenured or tenure-track women faculty, yet their experiences differ.

"Just saying 2 vs. 20 doesn't tell you anything about the experience," Thanheiser said. "What helped all of us persist? We're still here. What worked for us? What are we struggling with? All of us have colleagues that have left. What happened that didn't allow them to stay? Not everyone leaves for a bad reason but there are some people who have and it would be good to understand whether that could have been avoided or not."

The ADVANCE proposal grew out of frustrations over tracking down accurate faculty data and whether any reports or recommendations they submitted as members of the Diversity Action Council's Committee on Recruitment and Retention of Diverse Faculty would ever lead to meaningful change. Martinez, who was involved with an ADVANCE grant as a graduate student, suggested applying to the program.

The group's combination of disciplines is rare for a grant but it's also what allows them to take a different approach.

"Our disciplinary lenses gave us different ways of looking at this issue and we were able to bring these perspectives together to create something new," Ajibade said. "We were also willing and humble enough to learn from each other."

Inspired by the book Data Feminism, the team is combining qualitative, quantitative and socio-spatial data that they expect will yield deeper and more nuanced understandings of the equity landscape and "ecosystem" for diverse faculty at PSU.

In-depth interviews will be conducted with 33 faculty to elicit narratives about intersecting dynamics involving what they call the "5 P's":

  • Policies (concerning recruitment, hiring, promotion, tenure, etc.);
  • Practices (i.e. invisible labor related to diversity, equity and inclusion services or devaluing community-engaged scholarship);
  • Power structures (such as within departments or colleges/schools);
  • Places (i.e. welcoming vs. chilly classroom climates, affinity groups, community resources); and
  • People (i.e. mentors and collaborators on and/or off campus)

"We want to know how these 5 P's are being exerted on faculty and how that shapes the whole idea of retention and attrition," Ajibade said. "Do they empower or disempower? Do they allow for higher performance for some and lower performance for others? Do they make some people feel welcomed and others unwelcomed? Do they make some people have delayed tenure processes and others not? Do they make them feel their job is secure or insecure?"

Interviewees will include tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty across 11 STEM and social-behavioral science departments within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Anthropology, Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Science and Management, Geography, Geology, Mathematics + Statistics, Physics, Psychology, Sociology and Systems Science.

The interviews will then be analyzed and coded -- with involvement from the participants -- to help the group identify overall themes, create a series of visual maps based on the responses and develop a survey that can then be distributed to STEM faculty across PSU.

"The beauty of having topographic maps is that we can slice the data in different ways and see what the landscape looks like as we group our participants in different overlapping ways," Weasel said. "We're going to get this topography of their whole experience that will inform where the levers of change are."

That's key for the group -- identifying potential levers of change to improve the experiences, retention and career progression of faculty who have been marginalized in STEM.

"The ultimate goal is to develop a five-year plan for the university that's going to lead to real change at the university that should have implications for the climate and culture, and ultimately, for retention and performance," Martinez said.

So far there's been buy-in and support for the project from the PSU administration at every level -- and they hope that's only the start. An internal steering committee, which includes top administrators from across campus, will meet quarterly with the group to advise, support and evaluate PSU's self-assessment as well as guide the implementation of a sustainable five-year STEM faculty equity strategic plan following the grant period, while an external advisory board will meet twice a year to provide expertise on intersectionality, DEI, organizational change, STEM policies and practices and strategic planning.


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