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For women in STEM, focus is on creating networks

The opportunity to meet peers with whom to connect is critical to advancement in the academic world; Katia Passerini says that can be a problem area for women in the STEM fields.-(AARON HOUSTON)

In Katia Passerini’s first few years on the faculty at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in Newark, she joined forces with another professor there and applied for a grant. For Passerini, it was the first time she’d gone after grant funding.

She received so much more than money in the process.

For Passerini, it not only was a crash course in the process that is the financial lifeblood for so many researchers, but also an eye-opener to one of the biggest issues women in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — face: finding peers to connect with.

“If you don’t get the opportunity to meet these people, you’re not going to get the opportunity to apply for grants or publish more,” said Passerini, who was appointed interim dean of NJIT’s Albert Dorman Honors College earlier this month.

“Women tend to be a little shy in saying they need help,” she said. “There is this need for social interaction, sharing, creating networks.”

To address that need, NJIT’s Advance Program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and studies how to attract and retain women faculty in the STEM fields, has created a sort of online social network for the university’s faculty. The tool, still in a beta version, is scheduled to go live across the university this fall.

For years, there has been a concerted push to boost the country’s reputation when it comes to innovation in science and technology. More recently, the goal has been to level the STEM playing field with equal parts men and women. A lot of that has centered on increasing the number of female students majoring in these areas. At 26 percent, NJIT already has exceeded its goal of having females make up 25 percent of the total student population by 2015.

But the university also wants to make the percentage of women on the faculty mirror that of the student body. In 2012 alone, 24 percent of new tenure-track faculty members at NJIT were women.

Those numbers are strong, Passerini said. But adding female professors is only part of what it will take to change the landscape of the university. The real trick is to keep those professors for the long haul.

Passerini said NJIT has added a policy that allows women to stop the clock on the tenure process and take up to a year off when they have a child — a development she called “revolutionary.” But in the long run, collaborations — like those promised by the Advance tool — are vital.

Passerini worked on creating the tool alongside Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, the director of NJIT’s Murray Center for Women in Technology, who has studied extensively the sense of isolation among female faculty members in the STEM fields.

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