November 30, 2012

Professor Mary Armstrong Receives NSF Grant to Study Underrepresented Minority Women in STEM Fields

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $100,000 grant to Mary Armstrong, associate professor of English and chair of women’s and gender studies, and Jasna Jovanovic, professor of psychology and child development at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, for their study of how colleges and universities can more effectively support the success of underrepresented minority women faculty in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) academic fields.

Professor Mary Armstrong and Lauren White ’13

Professor Mary Armstrong and Lauren White ’13

The grant ($52,324 allotted to Armstrong and $47,676 allotted to Jovanovic) is part of the NSF’s ADVANCE program, founded in 2000 to address the proportional underrepresentation of women in almost all STEM fields. While the total numbers of women in STEM positions have increased over the last decade, women with non-majority characteristics in terms of race, ethnicity, disability status, and sexual orientation have mostly lagged behind.

“Our approach is based on the idea that institutions tend to structure supportive initiatives that address only one aspect of a potentially marginalized group, such as gender, or race, or sexual orientation,” explains Armstrong. “But an underrepresented minority woman will, by definition, have several such identities; hence, lesbians or women of color experience being a woman in STEM with complex, compound disadvantages.”

Armstrong and Jovanovic are conducting the first comprehensive study of how initiatives funded through the NSF ADVANCE program are enhancing the success of underrepresented women in STEM. The research team believes that successful institutional programs have to be creatively reshaped to accommodate the complications experienced by women who identify within multiple underrepresented identities.

The team can’t come up with examples of effective solutions without first clearly isolating current programming. That’s where women’s and gender studies major Lauren White ’13 (Lafayette, Calif.) comes in. Through the EXCEL Scholars undergraduate research program, White is helping Armstrong with a content analysis of documents to identify ways different universities have tried to support underrepresented female STEM faculty. Later, they will interview program staff at different institutions to evaluate what has worked well and what can be improved.

“Lauren’s participation is one of the most rewarding parts of this project,” says Armstrong. “It’s wonderful to work with a knowledgeable student who has all the intellectual tools to add to and benefit from participating in this kind of direct research experience. This is teaching and learning at its very best.”

Much like the women’s and gender studies field, the project is entirely interdisciplinary, which Armstrong believes is its major strength. She and Jovanovic have bridged Armstrong’s humanist skills with Jovanovic’s expertise as a social scientist to produce innovative results. Their work involves theories of identity, power, and privilege, as well as organizational change and institutional inclusivity. Armstrong and Jovanovic previously collaborated on Cal Poly’s IT-Start Grant.

“Our work uses interdisciplinary research to promote inclusivity by building models for institutional change that are both data-driven and theoretically informed,” says Armstrong. “It is also oriented towards finding best practices and sharing information, an approach that has the potential to benefit a lot of people and institutions over time.”

Joining the Lafayette faculty in 2009, Armstrong was the College’s first interdisciplinary hire as well as its first permanent “joint” appointment, as her position is shared between English and women’s and gender studies. Previously, she was the founding chair of Cal Poly’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department. Armstrong is a recipient of the College’s James E. Lennertz Prize for Exceptional Teaching and Mentoring.

posted in Academic News, Faculty and Staff, Faculty Profiles, Initiatives, News and Features, Top News, Work with Stellar Professor-Mentors

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