In college, Karen Bjorkman got used to being one of the only women in her science classes.
Now, as chairman of the physics and astronomy department at the University of Toledo, she's just as lonely.
Ms. Bjorkman, who is one of three women among 22 faculty members in the department, is part of a team looking at why there are so few women faculty members in sciences and engineering.
UT, Bowling Green State University, and four other northern Ohio universities are examining that question with the help of a $921,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
Across the country, women are underrepresented in tenured and tenure-track faculty in science, technology, engineering, and math.
"This is not just limited to the University of Toledo," Ms. Bjorkman said. "The broader picture is that in this day of competition around the world in technical areas and proficiency in science, we can't afford to throw away over half of our talent pool."
The three-year study, which also involves Case Western Reserve University, Kent State, Cleveland State, and the University of Akron, is intended to identify the factors contributing to the low numbers of female faculty members and put into place initiatives aimed at improving those numbers.
University officials say it's vital for young women to have female professors as role models.
"We have hit a point where the majority of [university] students are women, but that ratio is not being matched in the sciences," said Penny Poplin Gosetti, vice provost for academic innovation at UT. "When you see someone like yourself who is doing something you would like to do, you're far more likely to pursue that and be successful at that."
Deanne Snavely spent much of her career as the only female chemistry professor at BGSU, where she now is interim vice provost for research and dean of the graduate college. Finding qualified female faculty members in chemistry was, in a word, a challenge, she said.
"I would say I'm personally frustrated," Ms. Snavely said. "I was even chair of the chemistry department and had been on search committees and couldn't believe I would be at BGSU for 20 years and we didn't hire another female chemistry faculty member."
Today, there is just one female tenured or tenure-track faculty member in BGSU's chemistry department, none in physics and astronomy, one in computer science, five in mathematics and statistics, and 11 in biological sciences.
At UT, the numbers are equally telling.
Just 12 of the 82 tenured or tenure-track professors in the College of Engineering are women. Only 14 of the 102 faculty members in the science divisions of the College of Arts and Sciences are women. Of the 70 full professors in science and engineering, only five are women.
Ms. Bjorkman said the numbers of women faculty members shrink as they move up the ladder.
"We need to understand why is that happening? What are the factors that cause women to leave the field or move out of these tracks and what can we do to help keep more women in these fields?" she said.
Ms. Snavely said she is convinced, from her own experience, that attitudes about women in the sciences has had a long-lasting impact. "I had professors who said girls can't be chemists when I was in college. For some reason, I didn't listen," she said, adding that it takes a long time to change attitudes like that.
Among the ideas BGSU is looking at is "stopping the tenure clock" for faculty members who for family or medical reasons need additional time to gain tenure.
"This was proposed by Faculty Senate before the grant got started, but we saw that as something we would like to support and to help bring further discussion on campus," Ms. Snavely said.
Both BGSU and UT have conducted campuswide surveys intended to gather information about the climate for faculty and career advancement on campus. And last week, BGSU hosted Bernice Sandler for discussions on how Title IX, the 1972 federal law that prohibits gender-based discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds, relates to gender equity in science, engineering, math, and technology areas.
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