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History of Women in Cornell Engineering

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A Brief History of WISE by Paulette Clancy,
The Samuel & Diane Bodman Chair of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering.

Pre-history: If memory serves, the women faculty started to organize themselves in about 1997 into a group that eventually became known as WISE, and I was fortunate to be its first Chair. A decade prior to the formation of this group, there had been an oddly named “Status of Women” committee, which Prof. Christine Shoemaker (CEE) led and I eventually took over briefly as an untenured faculty member.  Christine was the only woman faculty member I remember meeting in those early days; she had taken on the mantle of the champion for women faculty, and I was lucky to be her “apprentice.”  She remained active in WISE until she left Cornell in 2015 for a new opportunity in Singapore.

Activism for women engineers:  WISE was an activist group from its inception. Some of the early issues that we faced are still important today. For instance, we wrote a maternity leave policy to replace the variety of outcomes that resulted from individual negotiations with department heads with a consistently applied policy. The original 1998 draft of the policy was 2 or 3 sentences long, but it was rewritten to be a far more inclusive gender-neutral family leave policy that still exists today and has served us well.  At the turn of the century, we were worried about the lack of women students in computer science, and computational sciences in general. This situation remains unresolved.

Some of the other issues are, thankfully, no longer a concern. For instance, the old Women’s Programs office in the College of Engineering was reconceived from its focus on remedial help for women students, based on advocacy by WISE. That office evolved into an award-winning Diversity Programs in Engineering group that pro-actively helps support the changing face of under-represented groups.  Sustained efforts by a creative Admissions staff, from then Director Betsy East to the present day, mean that we now boast an undergraduate program that makes as many offers to women prospective engineering freshmen as to men. Parity for women undergraduates seems to be within our grasp, and our record far outstrips the national average.  Parity is nowhere near the case for graduate women and more needs to be done to attract women to obtain PhD degrees in Engineering.

A bombshell from MIT: In 1999, an MIT study on “the status of women in science” caused a massive ripple throughout the country when MIT admitted to discriminating against female faculty in “subtle but pervasive” ways. Universities scrambled to assess their own degree of bias.  Sadly, unequal pay for men and women nationally, not just in universities, is still an issue (see the recent White House statements and the rise of the hashtag #equalpaynow).  In the wake of the MIT report, WISE played an important role in helping to increase support for women faculty hires through a subcommittee that awarded WISE “term chairs.” From the late 1990s to 2009, this WISE sub-committee ‘s $500,000 budget from the Provost’s office helped us to support offers to 31 women faculty candidates, resulting in 11 new women faculty on campus.

Recruitment and Advocacy: Beyond its role in faculty hiring, WISE acted as a strong voice for women faculty by ensuring the equity of their initial salary and the size of their start-up funds. It also played a key role in developing a mentoring plan to support the candidate, and sharing best practices for the professional development of young faculty with chairs and directors. It advocated for and offered options to mitigate a long-term solution for two-career families. The success of this WISE sub-committee spawned the development of a College-wide Strategic Oversight Committee (based on Purdue’s SOC) that continues to encourage and monitor effective practices for hiring a diverse faculty in terms of gender and ethnicity.

The coming of ADVANCE:  A defining moment for women’s programs came in 2006, with a successful NSF ADVANCE award led by Professors Sheila Hemami (ECE), Marjolein van der Meulen (then MAE, now Director of BME) and Shelley Correll (Sociology) and sanctioned by the Provost’s office. ADVANCE’s goals were to “increase the recruitment, retention, and promotion into leadership positions of women in engineering and the sciences, and to institutionalize best practices, policies and programs across colleges as they pertain to women faculty.”  Cornell’s ADVANCE program profoundly affected the pursuit of these goals, and created a community of women scientists and engineers from across campus. The program fearlessly pursued the goal of equity and a welcoming climate for those of us already here at Cornell. Importantly, it also set quantitative milestones: 20% women faculty in each department of science and engineering at Cornell and one-third women by the 2015 sesquicentennial.  As they so rightly said: “This level will move the representation of women from token status to a critical mass in each department, the environment that most determines faculty daily life.”  STEM hiring in women at Cornell did indeed reach 33.3% overall in AY 2015-16, but much remains to be done to reach even the 20% target for women faculty in each department, particularly in engineering.