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published on September 17, 2021 - 2:10 PM
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When Dr. Lalita Oka joined Fresno State in 2013, she was the only female professor in the Civil and Geomatics Engineering Department. She also noted how few, if any, female students she had in her engineering classes. 

“I was teaching a number of classes that had no female students,” said Oka. “Even those classes that had female students, it was like one or two in a class of 50 students. So it was really minimal female presence in our department.”  

Oka and Fresno State colleagues Dr. Kimberly Stillmaker and Dr. Arezoo Sadrinezhad led a grant application for a three-pronged approach to bring about systemic change to increase the representation of women faculty members — especially underrepresented minority women — in the field of engineering. In doing so, they hope to attract more female engineering students. 

The National Science Foundation has awarded Fresno State’s proposal for a $1.25 million grant to strengthen the representation of female engineering faculty in the California State University system. In addition to Fresno State, three other CSU campuses will share in this grant — Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo; San Jose State University and Cal State Los Angeles. Ultimately, the benefits could involve up to 11 other CSU campuses with engineering programs.

“This grant is significant in how it will transform our approach to supporting women professors in engineering,” said Dr. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, president of Fresno State. “Through identifying the main challenging issues, we will strengthen opportunities and implement a holistic approach to encourage female students to pursue the field. Consequently, by expanding the scope of the grant beyond just one campus, we will leverage the combined power of the greater CSU system.” 

The initiative, named the Kindling Inter-University Networks for Diverse (KIND) Engineering Faculty Advancement, will accomplish its goals through these three approaches:

  • — It will collect data about existing engineering faculty that participating campuses will analyze in Aspire’s Institutional Change (IChange) program. The program uses data to evaluate policies and procedures related to hiring, supporting and advancing existing faculty in an effort to achieve greater diversity and equity in the engineering professoriate.
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  • — It will create a CSU-wide network for research collaboration, providing mini-grants to support members of the network.
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  • — It will also establish a systemwide mentoring and peer support network to foster retention and promotion.

 

In 2019, only 17% of tenured/tenure-track faculty in U.S. colleges of engineering were women, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. That percentage is significantly lower for Black and Latina women.

“This grant is important in that it will bring together key stakeholders in the CSU system to find new ways to not only improve gender diversity in the professoriate but also to support women faculty to succeed professionally,” said Dr. Ram Nunna, dean of Fresno State’s Lyles College of Engineering. “The research could help the CSU develop new strategies to increase the participation and success of female students in engineering programs.”

Participating campuses will work with Fresno State’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness to create a dashboard that will track demographic and advancement data for the engineering faculty, enabling them to pinpoint where roadblocks exist in the hiring and retention process.

“Is it at the hiring stage where we aren’t getting diverse candidates? Is it in faculty departures before tenure? Is there a gender difference there? Once we have that data, then we’ll be able to make better changes, more pinpointed changes,” Stillmaker said.

While many studies have shown that a systemic review of recruitment and retention practices combined with strategic interventions can positively impact gender disparity, it has never been tested on a scale as big as the CSU system.

This is a three-year grant. Fresno State and the other CSU campuses plan to host networking events for faculty, especially engineering, and eventually expanding to STEM beyond the three-year grant period. 


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