UMass Amherst Awarded $3 Million by National Science Foundation to Foster Gender Equity and Inclusion in STEM Fields

UMass wordmark

AMHERST, Mass. – The National Science Foundation has awarded a coveted ADVANCE Institutional Transformation grant to the University of Massachusetts Amherst to support the development of an innovative professional advancement model for women faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The project further recognizes variations among women’s experience in academic STEM fields by race, ethnicity, and nationality. 

With the five-year, $3 million grant, an interdisciplinary team with members from four UMass Amherst colleges will focus on using collaboration as a tool for fostering equity for women in science and engineering fields. It is believed to be the largest social science-led interdisciplinary grant ever awarded to UMass Amherst.

“This highly competitive grant will be a tremendous boost for our continuing efforts to create a campus environment that supports the success of all members of our community,” says UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy. “I commend the faculty team for developing a winning proposal that envisions a new and bold way for the university to promote the success and professional growth of our faculty.”

The project is being led by principal investigator Enobong (Anna) Branch, professor of sociology and associate chancellor for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, to ensure that the successful ADVANCE project activities and practices are sustained beyond the award term and systematically integrated into the existing campus structure.

“We owe special thanks to the team of ADVANCE investigators who worked incredibly hard for several years to plan this project and secure the grant,” says Provost John McCarthy. “Faculty leadership generated the innovative research ideas that will inform ADVANCE, and the engagement of members of the broader community and academic leadership will be key to its success.”

“We’re eager to move from planning to implementation,” says Branch, “We’re taking steps to ensure that we build sustainable structures that scaffold equity and inclusion into our faculty advancement culture.”

At the heart of the project is what’s called the R3 model: strategically using resources, relationships and recognition to encourage faculty collaboration and equity. The project’s leadership is drawing upon research literature on leadership development and organizational behavior to create pathways for faculty advancement.

With coordination from the campus’ Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR), the ADVANCE project will center its research and programming on three essential elements: encouraging research collaboration, creating an inclusive community through mentoring, and promoting shared decision-making and governance at the department level.

“Research is what makes or breaks a faculty career in the sciences,” says sociology professor Laurel Smith-Doerr, managing co-PI and director of ISSR. “We are seeing more and more collaborative research in the sciences including social sciences.”

Along with having faculty work together on research, expanded mentoring helps create a deeper support network by connecting them with other faculty whose experience and insights can be an important resource.

Smith-Doerr says research shows that shared decision-making is more conducive than a top-down management model for encouraging collaboration. Women in the biomedical sciences have done better in companies where there is a flatter management structure, she says.

Planning for the ADVANCE project began four years ago, says Branch, with faculty from the colleges of Engineering, Information and Computer Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Social and Behavioral Sciences. The team of men and women, including four women of color, reviewed literature, collected pilot data, developed hypotheses, built relationships with stakeholders and, Branch says, ultimately keyed in on the idea that support for collaboration will advance equity for all women faculty, and may be particularly important for women of color.

With foundational work, such as a website and staff hiring now underway, some initial programming and organizational activities will likely unfold during the spring semester, according to Smith-Doerr. Meanwhile campus partners are being recruited to help translate the goals and programs at the college and school level. The project is working with the Provost’s Office to develop training for departmental leadership on issues such as mentoring and best practices.

Next semester, she adds, ISSR will call for proposals for seed funding for collaborative research projects. “We’ll ask people, ‘Will it be stellar science? How does it support gender equity?’”

There are also assessment and research aspects to the entire ADVANCE project, Branch says. External and internal evaluators will assess whether the program activities are meeting their goals. The social science research projects will investigate different dimensions of collaboration with a variety of research methodologies, to better understand the dynamics of intersectionality of race and gender, recognition of collaborative work and different governance contexts for faculty equity. These areas of study will help fulfill the NSF’s requirement that Institutional Transformation projects contribute new research on gender equity in STEM academics.

As the project moves forward, the leadership team invites wide engagement from faculty and campus leadership to develop further and implement the key program ideas and to participate in the research.

The other co-principal investigators are Joya Misra, sociology and public policy, Buju Dasgupta, psychological and brain sciences, Jennifer Normanly, biochemistry and molecular biology, James Allan, computer science, David McLaughlin, electrical and computer engineering, and Gabriela Weaver, chemistry.