U.Va.’s CHARGE Program ends, but significant institutional changes remain promoting women faculty in Engineering School

CHARGE Program allowed the University to make significant changes in HR practices and implement programs to increase diversity within the faculty

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Over the years during the ADVANCE grant, the total women faculty grew approximately 5 percent in both the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering. 

Lauren Mohan and Angela Chen | Cavalier Daily

The National Science Foundation awarded the University $3,017,226 beginning in 2012 as a part of their ADVANCE Institutional Transformation grant program focused on increasing the representation of women faculty in STEM disciplines. This grant ran from 2012 to 2017 with two additional “no cost extension” years, therefore officially bringing an end to the University’s CHARGE program Sept. 30. Despite the program ending due to the grant’s finite time, the initiatives put into place accelerated the University’s recruitment, hiring and retention of women faculty in the School of Engineering.

Assoc. Prof. of Anthropology Gertrude Fraser is the principal investigator of the University’s NSF CHARGE Program and carried out much of the grassroots work applying for the grant and demonstrating U.Va.’s readiness for this kind of change.

“That was part of the criteria for the grant … We have to show the institutional capacity to do the work,” Fraser said.

Her and a sub-group of female colleagues attempted twice to win the grant, but their proposal was approved on their third try.

As far as ensuring that the University’s focus on increasing women faculty in the School of Engineering, the NSF funding was extremely instrumental. 

“In institutionalizing these interventions, CHARGE had a huge, huge role to play,” Fraser said.

According to Pamela Norrris, executive dean in the School of Engineering, there has been an increase in women faculty in both the College and School of Engineering. In the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the total women faculty in STEM and social, behavioral and economic sciences grew from 22.4 percent in 2012 to 27.5 percent in 2018. In the School of Engineering, the total women faculty grew from 15 percent in 2012 to 20 percent in 2018 over the years during the ADVANCE grant.

The University is known for having the highest percentage of women engineering graduates of any public institution across the country at 33 percent, according to the Engineering Department. This initiative to increase female faculty in the School of Engineering has social implications for the undergraduate demographics as well. 

“When you see mentors and faculty, you can self-identify — ‘They can do it, I can do it too,’” said Norris. “And that definitely helps increase the representation of the student population as well.”

There is still progress to be made though, as women faculty representation is slowly gaining momentum within the School of Engineering. 

“You just kind of expect that your professor will be a male,” said fourth-year engineering student Sarah Winston Nathan. 

Over the years, the CHARGE program worked to identify and intervene in the most critical areas in order to improve women faculty’s experience. One initiative was to transform the HR’s search and hiring process. CHARGE developed implicit bias interventions and bias awareness trainings.

“All of us have implicit biases that might impact the way we value a candidate based on their ethnicity or gender, or other kinds of subjective factors that shouldn’t have an impact on judging their merit,” Fraser said. 

Facilitated theater is a new problem-solving technique that the University currently uses to indirectly address potential discrimination through performances. U.Va. has hired the University of New Hampshire players to act out the prejudices within hiring scenarios, which allows faculty and search committees involved in the search and hiring processes to realize the impact of biases. Fraser explained how she invited colleagues who were on search committees, department chairs and any other interested faculty members to watch these scenarios. The experience is meant to be interactive, as faculty in the audience readily interrupted, commented and asked to redo certain parts of the vignettes portrayed by the players. 

The theater approach has been a very effective mediator and method to recognize biases in the search and hiring process for new U.Va. faculty members. Fraser added, “It changed the people's sense of what was possible in terms of creating fair and equitable recruiting processes.”

“You're able to sit and watch and see your implicit bias cause a search process to build a certain direction,” Norris said. “It wasn't confronting. It was not shaming them at all. It was causing them to be reflective and to be able to see how implicit bias had influenced an outcome. So much so that the University of Virginia has started its own theater group. And again with another interesting partner through the Center for Teaching [Excellence].” The theater group expands the type of issues that UVA Acts is currently tackling at the University. 

NSF Institutional Transformation grants typically require two components — one is to identify and implement specific initiatives at the local university level, and the other is a research component to identify initiatives that can be adopted by other schools nation-wide. NSF’s aim is to discover best practices that universities, communities and organizations at large can implement. Throughout the ongoing research component of the grant, the CHARGE program has made various surprising partnerships with different U.Va. offices. 

One noteworthy CHARGE partner, University Facilities Management, has significantly helped increase lighting on grounds at night in response to research findings from the CHARGE program. Dr. Sophie Trawalter, assistant professor of public policy and psychology in the Batten School, is currently researching the correlation between women’s sense of belonging and safety to their physical environment. Trawalter understands that a sense of safety and belonging is a prerequisite for productivity. Both Facilities Management and the Office of the Architect are currently working on projects to increase lighting in identified dark areas around grounds. 

CHARGE also made a strong case for starting the Dual Career Program in the Office of the Provost at the University in order to recruit and retain women in STEM fields. The Dual Career Program helps the spouses of prospective or newly hired U.Va. faculty members to also find employment on and off grounds. 

“Often women faculty in these fields had spouses or partners who were either also academics or, in order for them to move, they had to have positions to two people, not just one,” Fraser said.

CHARGE has also helped create the Directors of Diversity and Inclusion program within the School of Engineering, modeling it after the College of Arts and Sciences’ DDI program. These directors have been trained to advise their colleagues about good intervention practices and how to structure hiring searches that are welcoming to diverse communities to increase underrepresented minorities on the faculty.

“Our plan from the beginning was to always weave the initiatives into the fabric of the University so that they would be sustained beyond the grant funding years,” Norris said. “So I have every confidence that the interventions we have designed will continue to have the same sorts of impact on the short term, or in the future I should say.” 

Now that CHARGE has officially ended, it is crucial that the University continues to move in the direction that the NSF ADVANCE program allowed for under the grant’s duration as emphasized by Fraser. “The work that needs to be sustained and questions about what comes next has to emerge out of [the] University,” noted Fraser. 

NSF’s Institutional Transformation grants are a one-time project that is meant to make sustained change. Now the work that needs to be done and the questions of future change need to emerge from the University itself. 

“So what’s really important is to continue the conversation both at the grassroots level and with senior administrators about the importance of sustaining the work and keeping our attention on these issues,” Fraser said. 

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