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  September 3, 2002

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Polls Women in Math and Sciences
By Sherry Fisher

Female faculty want better maternity leave policies and more on-campus childcare, and students and faculty alike are in favor of mentorship programs, according to a survey of women in the fields of mathematics and science at the Storrs campus.

The survey of female undergraduates, graduate students and faculty was sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis, it was an outgrowth of issues and concerns raised by the Chancellor's Commission on the Status of Women that have been documented over the last decade. Some 132 undergraduates, 113 graduate students, and 17 faculty were surveyed.

Questions focused on five areas: experiences in math and science fields of study; confidence and self-efficacy; treatment, behavior and socializing within departments; recruitment and retention of female faculty; and feelings about a proposed mentoring program.

"The results of the survey are largely encouraging in that, at all levels, women feel vitally interested in their disciplines and do not feel discriminated against on the basis of gender," says Ross MacKinnon, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "There are however, several issues that need to be addressed."

Faculty want improvements in the University's maternity leave policy and more on-campus childcare options. They also were concerned about spousal placement and housing. "These are University-wi de issues and need to be addressed so we may recruit and retain the best faculty," MacKinnon says.

All the women surveyed support implementation of a mentoring program for "career advice and guidance" for students and new or junior faculty. Undergraduate students expressed some degree of discomfort in speaking in classes in their majors.

"The fundamental problem that we're facing is that there aren't enough women in math and science," says MacKinnon. "We need to have a better representation of faculty members who are women, attract and retain them, and have them be successful. We have to hire more women and make the environment appropriate. We also need to be sensitive to the issues that female scientists face when they're trying to balance a time-consuming career and a family."

As part of the University's effort to create an environment that enhances the experience of women in math and science, Judy Kelly, a professor of molecular and cell biology, has applied for a National Science Foundation Advance institutional transformation grant to support new approaches to improve the campus environment for women in science, math, and engineering.

Initiatives she proposes include enhancing the mentoring program for junior faculty and students; workshops to explore issues of diversity and gender equity on campus; and a visiting fellows program to bring outstanding female scientists to campus.

"This is not an initiative that will be beneficial only for women," Kelly says. "It's going to enhance the climate for all faculty and students in the University. We're going to make this an environment where everyone can succeed."

Such an environment begins when girls are in elementary, middle and high school, says Sally Reis, professor and head of the educational psychology department and a member of the Chancellor's Commission on the Status of Women at UConn.

"Far fewer girls than boys, and women than men, go into math and science or indicate an interest in these areas," says Reis, who has studied talented girls in math and science for many years. "It's a systemic issue. If we want to make a difference, we've got to start with young girls."

In the grant proposal, Kelly describes programs UConn already has in place that target middle school and high school girls. "We want them to get involved in activities that will pique their interest in science and keep them engaged in the kinds of classes that will open the doors to careers in the sciences when they get to the University," she says.

Veronica Makowsky, associate dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says a similar survey is planned for male faculty members, to see whether they share some of the same issues.

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