11 to 48 in 14

By Maria Klawe

Maria Klawe sitting next to a Koi pond

Maria Klawe, President Harvy Mudd College

The paucity of females in science and engineering has been bothering me for a long time. It started when I was a young girl who loved all things that were supposed to be just for boys. It intensified when math faculty asked me why I wanted to be a mathematician given that there were no good female mathematicians. When I moved to the University of British Columbia in 1988 as the Head of Computer Science I was the fourth female to become a full professor in the Faculty of Science


and the 11th female science faculty member out of a total of about 300. I was also the first female faculty member in computer science and the first female department head in the Faculty of Science. Naturally I wanted to do something about increasing the number of female faculty. In 1998 when I became the first female Dean of Science the number of female faculty had increased to 24 with 2 in computer science. Four years later in 2002 there were 48 with 7 in computer science.

There were many factors that contributed to the growth from 11 to 48 female science faculty over 14 years. Two men, Dan Birch, the provost who recruited me, and Barry McBride, Dean of Science for eight years before me, played key roles as did two women appointed by Dan and Barry, respectively: Sharon Kahn, Associate Vice-President for Equity, and Judy Myers, Associate Dean of Science. National programs to increase the participation of women by NSERC, Canada’s federal granting agency for research in science and engineering, were critically important. Most of all it took hard work by many people over a long time including extended periods where little progress was made despite the hard work.

In my first few years at UBC the situation was a bit discouraging. At first, many of the university leaders didn’t see the low numbers of female faculty as an issue. In 1989 I asked Barry McBride, a Dean of Science candidate, what he would do about female faculty and he said “I wouldn’t want to prevent the hiring of female faculty”. I responded “That’s not good enough. This is an important issue and the next dean needs to work on it.” He replied “In that case, I will learn about the issue and work on fixing it.” After Barry became Dean one of his first actions was to appoint zoologist Judy Myers as his Associate Dean to work on increasing the number of female faculty. Judy’s presence at the department heads meetings made a huge difference. Before then, I was the lone voice on issues related to female students and faculty. The pronoun “he” was used in every context and I felt like a broken record constantly chiming in “or she”. I found it remarkable how having two females at the table instead of one significantly changed the dynamics.

Over the next few years as Science, and UBC as a whole, started to focus on how to recruit more female faculty, it became clear strategies were needed to enable the hiring of couples because many female faculty candidates had a partner who was also looking for an academic position. Barry and Judy, with help from Dan and Sharon, came up with many creative solutions to funding the hiring of the partner.

The situation in my own department during my six and a half years as head was more challenging. We hired fifteen new faculty members but none were female in spite of making offers to female candidates every year. In every case we were competing with much better known departments that were offering higher salaries and start-up packages. The people who accepted our offers came because they believed in our goal of building a top computer science department despite the many challenges facing us. It seemed that several of the females who we tried to recruit over those years felt that coming to UBC was too risky. We decided we needed to try longer term initiatives including targeting Canadian female Ph.D. students. One of our top targets was Gail Murphy at the University of Washington.

In early 1995 I became the Vice-President for Student and Academic Services, the first female VP at UBC. Later that year while visiting the University of Washington, I met with Gail to try to convince her and her husband Mike, a microbiologist, to apply for faculty positions at UBC. I was thrilled when UBC ended up hiring both of them in 1996. Finally after eight years of hard work, computer science had its second female faculty member. Mike’s appointment was initially a three year appointment in microbiology with much of the funding coming from computer science and the dean’s office. When a regular position in microbiology became available a couple of years later the department chose Mike to fill it.

In 1996 NSERC launched its Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering Program (CWSE). The goal was to appoint a senior female faculty member in each of five geographic regions for a five year term to lead programs on increasing the participation of women in science and engineering in the region. The funding from NSERC needed to be matched by a corporate sponsor. Together with support from IBM Canada I applied for the CWSE for British Columbia and the Yukon. As part of the proposal to NSERC, UBC committed to hire an additional faculty member in computer science with responsibilities to recruit and mentor female students in CS. I was awarded the CWSE for BC in 1997, and both UBC and NSERC agreed that I could hold this while remaining in my VP position.

Shortly thereafter Barry became the provost at UBC and I became Dean of Science in November 1998. As provost and with continuing help from Sharon Kahn, Barry continued and expanded the “partner-hiring” program. Of the 48 female science faculty in 2002, 16 were married to another science faculty member illustrating the effectiveness of this program. In 1999 we managed to recruit Anne Condon to fill the CWSE-related position and also Cristina Conati for a regular position. Now we had four female faculty in computer science. The fifth, Karon Maclean, was hired in 2000, and the sixth and seventh, Joanna McGrenere and Tamara Munzner, in 2002. In many ways the decision to add the CWSE position was transformational. By agreeing to recruit a faculty member with special responsibilities for mentoring female students, the department had made a clear commitment to caring about the participation of females in computing. And Anne Condon, as an outstanding researcher, teacher and mentor was the perfect choice.

How the math department also went from 2 to 7 female faculty from 1998 to 2002 is another interesting story. Shortly after I became Dean I was invited to a meeting with the math department and a female graduate student asked me why only 2 of the over 50 math faculty members were female. The second female faculty member had been hired 14 years before and many males had been hired since then. The math department had a number of openings and I replied that I would be happy to help the math department recruit more female faculty if they were interested. A week later I met with a handful of male math faculty members to create a plan. The key idea was to develop a “hit list” of potential recruits by asking faculty members to suggest outstanding female mathematicians at any level from Ph.D. student to full professor who they thought would be great additions to the department. This generated about 20 names. After further discussion the department agreed on a dozen women to contact.

Several people on the list were invited to visit the department to explore whether they might be interested in joining. We were thrilled when one of the candidates decided to move to UBC from Princeton University, increasing the number of female faculty by 50%. Our celebration was short-lived because the first female faculty member decided to retire shortly thereafter bringing the number back to 2. A year later, however, the department managed to hire 3 more female faculty bringing the number to 5, and then another 2 the next year. About half of the women who were recruited were from the original “hit list”. The other half were discovered along the way.

The University Faculty Award (UFA) program at NSERC played a significant role in helping UBC science departments recruit female faculty during this period. Each year until 2008, about 20 women taking their first tenure-track faculty position at a Canadian university received a UFA, providing them with a five year research grant and their university with $40,000 per year for five years towards their salary. Obviously $40,000 covered only part of the salary. After the heads of several UBC science departments mentioned that they were not nominating candidates for UFAs because they didn’t have the resources to top up the salary, we agreed that the Dean of Science would cover the difference for the five year period. Given the limited resources available to the Dean this essentially meant that all nine departments would share the cost for successful UFA candidates. This provided an incentive for all departments to find UFA candidates that would be successful. As a result UBC Science often topped the list of institutions receiving UFAs.

Over the 14 years covered in this story there was lots of resistance to hiring female faculty in science. Many people felt that efforts to recruit more women meant lowering standards. The UFA program helped address this perception since it was a national program that was highly competitive. Others felt that women were not naturally interested in certain areas of science and trying to change this was a waste of time. Overcoming the resistance took patience, persistence, and incentives. The long term of support of senior academic leaders and the NSERC programs were critical. But in many respects the most important factor was the faculty members in each department who persistently searched for outstanding female scientists who would be fabulous additions to UBC.

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