Western team works to increase gender, racial diversity in higher ed STEM fields

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Work to diversify representation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) faculty is moving forward at Western Michigan University. Fueled by a nearly $1 million National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant, a team at Western is partnering with researchers at Iowa State University, North Dakota State University and Michigan Technological University to create programming aimed at increasing the participation of women, and particularly women of color, in STEM.

Work on the three-year grant began in early 2020. Western's team created a cross-institutional women's caucus, developing programming including lectures, films, discussions and workshops to address biases facing women in STEM fields. Some of the recordings are still available to watch online.

"What I like about this program is it's kind of two prongs: There's the women's caucus activities, which are more aimed at raising awareness around issues of gender and racial bias and STEM, and then there are the training pieces … and support networks for faculty," says Dr. Heather Petcovic, co-principal investigator on the grant and chair of Western's Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences.

Clockwise from top left: Dr. Carla Koretsky, Dr. Heather Petcovic, Deirdre Courtney and Dr. Michelle Hrivnyak

"I enjoy thinking about how we can support women on campus, how we can support everyone on campus really, to make this a better place. It's really been positive in that respect," adds Dr. Carla Koretsky, co-principal investigator and dean of Western's College of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Michelle Hrivnyak, faculty specialist in the Institute for Intercultural and Anthropological Studies, and Deirdre Courtney, a part-time instructor and Ph.D. candidate, are fellows on the project. They facilitated the cross-institutional caucus series, coordinated the events and collected feedback from participants.

"We've heard that people feel comfortable going back to their university or their spaces and doing some of the work that they're learning in these workshops or different events, whether it's standing up for women, or making spaces or even recognizing some of their own biases," Courtney says.

"I got a lot of feedback about how people thought differently about things in their department after they watched and participated," adds Koretsky. One session she found particularly powerful was called "Power Play," which included both an academic presentation about biases and an interactive theatre group performing a variety of those scenarios.

Work related to the grant continues this month with the Advocates and Allies program, which focuses on bringing male faculty into gender and racial equity and advocacy efforts. Cross-institutional faculty mentoring groups have also been assembled, partnering senior faculty mentors with junior mentees grouped by intersectional identity and disciplines.

"I think those are really impactful," Koretsky says.

The impact of the work extends beyond the institutions participating in the grant; Western's team will begin presenting its progress at professional conferences to offer evidenced-based approaches to diversifying faculty and institutional spaces.

While important as a scientist and environmental justice advocate on her own academic journey, the work is deeply personal to Courtney.

"It means everything to me. I'm a mom, I have daughters; I'm a grandmother," says Courtney. "I'm the second oldest of 12 siblings. We grew up in an underprivileged upbringing. It just means everything, because I'd like to see individuals who, like myself, maybe didn't have the opportunities to do the things that I've done or to be in spaces and make an impact. I'm hoping that the things I'm doing allow others, especially those similar to myself, to know there's a space for them and a space for their work."

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