$3.5 Million NSF Grant Supports Research on Gender Bias

The leadership team for Making WAVES--Women Academics Valued and Engaged in STEM Image by Tory Germann
The leadership team for Making WAVES, which is funded by a five-year, $3.5 million National Science Foundation grant.

By Katharine Webster

Pamela Conrad, a NASA scientist who researches extreme environments on Earth to better understand the surface of Mars, loves to explore — whether at the North and South poles, in Death Valley or inside a submersible vehicle on the ocean floor.

But sometimes her biggest concern isn’t the danger of a hostile environment. It’s how to go to the bathroom while clothed in protective gear designed for men.

“Let me tell you what it feels like to be in a ball six-and-a-half feet wide on the very bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It is scary — and you think a lot about whether or not you’re going to have to pee,” she said, to a wave of laughter from faculty, administrators and students. “So I dehydrated myself.”

Conrad, an astrobiologist and mineralogist who works on the Mars rover team, spoke at a launch event for Making WAVES (Women Academics Valued and Engaged in STEM), a campuswide initiative to research and address barriers confronting women and minority faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Making WAVES is supported by a five-year, $3.5 million ADVANCE Institutional Transformation grant from the National Science Foundation, awarded to the university’s Center for Women and Work. The campaign will raise awareness about “microaggressions,” promote equity and alternative paths to mentoring, reform institutional practices and hold departments and colleges accountable for becoming more inclusive.

Chemical engineering major and math minor Wendy Marroquin is “obsessed” with NASA and was excited to hear Conrad speak. Marroquin, who recently transferred here from MassBay Community College, is also happy to be on a campus where more of her classmates and professors are women.

“I’m used to being the only Hispanic female in my engineering classes,” she said. “And in math, I was usually the only girl.”


Conrad gave several examples of microaggressions she’d confronted because of her gender, including having a male graduate student on an Antarctica expedition refuse to pull his communications shift because he was tired.

UML Chancellor Jacquie Moloney with NASA scientist Pamela Conrad, Center for Women and Work Director Meg Bond, and Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation Julie Chen Image by Tory Germann
Chancellor Jacquie Moloney with NASA scientist Pamela Conrad, Center for Women and Work Director Meg Bond and Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Julie Chen.
“If his (male) mentor had told him ‘You’re going to do this job,’ he would have done it,” she said. Instead, Conrad asked the graduate student if he’d like her to call for a helicopter to take him out. He decided to stay and do his job.

Other common microaggressions include patronizing remarks, having your ideas ignored by senior faculty until they’re echoed by a male colleague — who then gets the credit — and scheduling meeting times that interfere with childcare responsibilities, women faculty say. 

Such slights are often unintentional, part of a culture in which all faculty are encouraged to aggressively pursue grants, grad students and publication in prestigious journals, says Assoc. Prof. of ChemistryMarina Ruths, part of the Making WAVES leadership team. But they can make women feel marginalized.

“Such remarks are seen as part of the competitive spirit you’re supposed to have, but they can border on bullying,” Ruths says. “It’s often unintentional, so it’s harder to address. You’re supposed to be aggressive, and that sometimes carries over into interactions in a way that’s unnecessary.”

Psychology Prof. Meg Bond, director of the Center for Women and Work, says most microaggressions, taken one by one, seem not worth making a fuss about. But their cumulative effect is to discourage women and underrepresented minorities from pursuing academic careers. Nationwide, women comprise nearly half of all university students majoring in STEM fields, but only one quarter of faculty.

“It’s death by a thousand paper cuts,” she says.

Champions for Women

The grant was awarded to UMass Lowell because of the Center for Women and Work’s previous research on gender bias, as well as broad support from the faculty union and campus leadership — including Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, who is named as primary investigator. 

UML Chemical engineering major Wendy Marroquin listens to NASA scientist Pamela Conrad Image by Tory Germann
Chemical engineering major Wendy Marroquin listens to Conrad talk about her NASA career and the Mars rover.
“When the National Science Foundation was looking for a university to help them build a model for advancing women and faculty of color in STEM, they wanted an institution that had the wherewithal to pull off an institutional transformation,” Moloney said at the launch event. “Where else could they look but UMass Lowell? We have absolutely transformed this university in a short time.”

Making WAVES is being directed by Bond and Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Julie Chen. The leadership team also includes Ruths, Asst. Prof. of Plastics EngineeringMeg Sobkowicz-Kline, Assoc. Prof. of Psychology Michelle Haynes-Baratz, Assoc. Prof. of EducationJill Lohmeier, Asst. Prof. of Psychology Christopher Allen and project manager Brita Dean.

The team will employ a wide range of strategies to address lingering bias and do research on which strategies are most effective so they can be used by other universities. The idea isn’t to shame anyone or scrutinize individual motives, but to change behaviors and promote equity, Bond says.

Previous Research and Concrete Initiatives

The grant builds on previous research by center faculty, including development of the Subtle Gender Bias Index in partnership with UMass Medical Center. The index, which measures faculty experiences and perceptions about bias, will be administered every two years to stimulate discussion and evaluate change.

The Making WAVES team also will develop bystander training for department chairs and other influential faculty to give them skills to be effective allies for women and underrepresented minorities. Simple steps, like a senior faculty member deliberately repeating and acknowledging good suggestions by younger faculty, could help create a more collegial and respectful environment, Sobkowicz-Kline says.

NASA scientist Pamela Conrad speaking at UMass Lowell Image by Tory Germann
NASA scientist Pamela Conrad spoke at the kickoff event for Making WAVES, a research initiative aimed at boosting women and minority faculty in science, technology, engineering and math.
It’s also important to provide women and other marginalized faculty with creative networking opportunities, she says. Sobkowicz-Kline will oversee expansion of the 50/50 lectures, in which a junior faculty member invites and hosts a “star” in her field for a guest lecture on both her research and career path. The idea is to help the junior faculty member develop a relationship with someone who can mentor her, invite her to speak at conferences or include her as a co-investigator on research. 

Ruths will help establish IDEA (InterDisciplinary Exchange and Advancement) Communities around a common interest, such as climate change, digital health or 3-D printing. IDEA Communities, which have already been tried with great success in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (FAHSS), will bring together science and engineering faculty across ranks and departments to spark conversations about their research — and perhaps even discussions about juggling family and job responsibilities.

Bond says another common problem is that women are asked to take on more “service” assignments, such as involving undergraduates in their research and serving on committees. FAHSS Dean Luis Falcón and Engineering Dean Joseph Hartman will work with the colleges and departments to establish detailed and transparent procedures for hiring, workload distribution and decisions on promotion and tenure. 

This spring, the Provost's Speaker Series will bring in speakers on bystander intervention and bias in the academy on Feb. 28 and April 7.

Haynes-Baratz is the lead researcher on the grant. She and Allen will develop innovative approaches to measuring and tracking microaggressions over time. Lohmeier, the internal evaluator, will research the effectiveness of different interventions in coordination with external evaluator Mariko Chang.