Skip to main content

WISELI survey to analyze quality of work life for UW-Madison faculty

January 17, 2006 By Daniel Uttech

Mahatma Gandhi once instructed others to “be the change you want to see in the world.” This spring, the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) is offering UW faculty to be that change. In collaboration with the UW Survey Center, WISELI is releasing a questionnaire to gauge the quality of work life for faculty on campus and how well WISELI’s interventions have been received.

Photo of Handelsman and Carnes talking in a lab.

Co-directors of the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) Jo Handelsman, right, professor of plant pathology, and Molly Carnes, professor of women’s health research, sit in Handelsman’s lab as they discuss a survey designed to gauge the quality of work life for faculty at UW–Madison. Findings from a similiar study in 2003 led WISELI to develop a series of seminars to improve search committees, lab management and the management of academic departments.

Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart

“This is their chance,” WISELI co-director Molly Carnes says. “If they’ve participated in something and they think it’s great, they can say that. If they’ve participated in something that they think was a complete waste of time, they can say that.”

Faculty should be reassured that their honest comments are confidential. However, to make the survey work, faculty and staff will need to reveal in which department they work.

“We ask for department because we’re interested in departmental climate,” WISELI research director Jennifer Sheridan says.

When the results of the survey, which has been approved by the Institutional Review Board and the survey center, are released, they will be clear of all identifiers. To see previous WISELI survey results, read the 2003 study of faculty work life at The 2003 survey was administered to gain an understanding about the quality of work life at UW–Madison. The 2006 survey is quite similar, although it now hopes to gauge the quality of work life after WISELI’s interventions have taken place.

“This survey will allow us to determine which of our interventions have been most successful,” says Carnes, who is also a Jean Manchester Biddick Professor of Women’s Health Research. “And so in times of scarce resources, this allows us to take an evidence-based approach and invest our resources into initiatives that work.”

The survey comes at a crucial time, as WISELI’s resources are about to become more scarce. WISELI is entering its fifth year of a nonrenewable five-year grant. The grant is a National Science Foundation (NSF) ADVANCE Institutional Transformation award. ADVANCE grants help to increase the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers.

Fortunately, one WISELI program has already received support beyond the grant. In its first year, WISELI attempted to meet with every tenured woman professor on campus and held several town hall meetings to assess priorities. The Vilas Life Cycle Professorship, now supported by the Vilas Trustees, was created by WISELI after WISELI officials saw a definite need to help people balance work life and family. The Vilas Life Cycle grant is awarded to individuals involved in personal crises that jeopardize their research.

“We wanted to show that the University of Wisconsin was really invested in a whole human and wanted to help an individual’s research career no matter what it took,” Carnes says. “Sometimes in the course of a life, unforeseen personal things happen that put your career in jeopardy, even though you’re still a potential Nobel laureate.”

Other WISELI programs include its seminar series, climate workshops for department chairs, workshops for search committee chairs, workshops on laboratory management and mentoring. After the first survey in 2003, WISELI officials realized that these programs needed to be put into place to help improve workplace climate. In some cases, WISELI staff members have provided mentoring for individual women on campus.

“We found the cases were so serious we were at risk of losing extremely successful and eminent scientists,” WISELI co-director and Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor Jo Handelsman says. “It was important for us to help them, and [WISELI] played a strong role for women.”

WISELI researcher Eve Fine adds, “For everybody, the survey in 2003 brought to life issues that they were not aware of or they were not aware of the extent of the degree to which departmental members saw that as a problem.”

The climate workshops brought department chairs together to discuss climate, understand climate from others’ perspectives, discuss survey results and address how planning, leadership and decision-making styles affect departmental climate. The search committee workshops help chairs to recognize the influence of unconscious gender bias and assumptions in hiring and how to bring in the broadest pool of candidates.

“It was very gratifying to see chairs share ideas and help each other,” Handelsman says. “It was great to see chairs from different departments brainstorming together, creating great ideas.”

The climate and search committee workshops and other WISELI programs will be under the microscope as the survey is released. If the survey reveals evidence toward an increase in the quality of work life, WISELI will be looking for a way to continue those programs as the NSF grant expires.

“Are the new faculty members coming in more satisfied with being a faculty member than those in the past? If so, we can continue those programs that deal with new faculty. And if we can show that these interventions, which were designed to improve the climate for women, are improving the climate for everybody, that’d be great. That’s been our goal all along,” Sheridan says. “[The survey] is an opportunity for faculty to have a say in what programs are out there.”

For more information about WISELI and its programs or the survey, contact Jennifer Sheridan at or 263-1445. The survey will be mailed on Monday, Jan. 23.