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Documentary depicts women in science

February 24, 2004

A film documenting the story — past, present and future — of women in science and engineering at UW–Madison will premiere on Monday, March 1.

The 35-minute film will be shown at 2 p.m., preceded at 1:30 p.m. by a reception and brief remarks. The free event will be held at Union South.

The first in a series, the documentary captures the climate for women in the biological and physical sciences, and shares some of the efforts under way to increase the number of female faculty members in these fields and to enhance the opportunity for advancement.

Investigating why there’s such a small percentage of female faculty members in the biological and physical sciences is a mission of the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute, a $3.75 million, five-year effort funded by the National Science Foundation. WISELI also wants to develop initiatives that improve the campus climate for these women.

“Although an increasingly large percentage of women earn doctoral degrees in the sciences, far fewer enter the professoriate and even fewer achieve high-level administrative positions,” says Jennifer Sheridan, the institute’s research director.

“We are using the campus as a living laboratory to study and test interventions that we hope and expect to have a positive effect on the advancement of women and on achieving equity between genders,” says Jo Handelsman, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor, a plant pathologist and co-director of WISELI.

The new documentary features WISELI and a baseline of the campus climate in the first year the institute was established. It looks back on the remarkable efforts of UW–Madison administrators and women faculty over the years to enhance the working environments of women scientists and engineers, thereby encouraging more of them to enter the academic enterprise.

But the film also details some of the struggles women face in science. Most of these challenges center on balancing the demands of work and family life. Some are more subtle, such as unconscious biases that affect hiring decisions.

WISELI, now in its third year, is addressing these impediments by holding town hall meetings, conducting surveys and interviews, and evaluating old and new programs on campus. The WISELI team is developing ways both to break down some of the barriers encountered by women in the sciences and to celebrate their role in these areas.

Says Paul Peercy, dean of the College of Engineering, “WISELI has helped us engage leaders of the college and departments in dialogue and raise awareness about the college climate and how we might improve it. WISELI is also assisting us in recruiting and retaining female faculty members.” Peercy notes that during the last two years, the College of Engineering has hired eight such faculty members, bringing the college’s total to 23.

WISELI also wants to improve the diversity of women in these research areas.

“We are determined to include the voices of women of color throughout this initiative,” says Molly Carnes, co-director of WISELI and a professor of medicine. “It is imperative to include gender in discussions of diversity at the university as well as diversity in discussions of gender.”

To this end, the WISELI team is working with a larger campus initiative led by the Office of the Provost to address and improve climate for students, staff and faculty.

Says Provost Peter Spear, “WISELI is implementing a number of exciting programs to achieve these same goals with a focus on women in science and engineering. The provost’s office and WISELI have been working together to expand a number of WISELI’s initiatives to the campus as a whole.”

One way the institute is accomplishing this is by awarding “Life Cycle” grants open to all science and engineering faculty members — regardless of gender — who are experiencing life events that conflict with career advancement, says Handelsman.

The documentary just begins to highlight some of the efforts of WISELI and to touch on the history of the university in promoting the inclusion of women faculty in the sciences.

The documentary, which includes interviews with faculty and administrators, is one way the WISELI group hopes to capture the campus climate for women in science and engineering, as well as record any changes that may result from WISELI’s efforts.

“The video project is an effort to document institutional change during the life of the ADVANCE grant [the NSF grant funding WISELI],” says Handelsman. “One of the hardest things for us to do is to capture the subtle flavor and texture of change. With the documentary, we want to record where we were and how far we’ve come in terms of institutional change and provide a baseline for evaluating WISELI’s impact.”

Dan Schwartzentruber, the film’s videographer, will make brief remarks before the documentary. A presentation by the WISELI team and a performance by Adam Dachman, who wrote the musical score for the documentary, will follow the showing.