One of the most divisive terms in the English language these days just may be “climate change.” But for organizers at the ADVANCE Center at Texas A&M University, those words have a different meaning, synonymous instead with a unified effort to improve the university’s work environment by encouraging diversity and reducing bias.
“Texas A&M has a rich history as an all-male, military-based college,” says Mary Jo Richardson, Regents Professor and professor of oceanography and geology/geophysics, who serves as co-chair of the Climate Change initiative. “Obviously we now have female students, professors and administrators which necessitate adaptation to the changing educational environment.”
Climate Change is just one of a number of efforts managed by The ADVANCE Center at Texas A&M, a program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as an interdisciplinary collaboration among departments in STEM fields of study (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Now in its third year on campus, the center’s mission is to enhance and sustain gender equity and improve the representation of women faculty in STEM.
“Faculty members are continually interacting with administration, colleagues, staff and students,” explains Richardson. “Some of those interactions could be improved through awareness of implicit bias, conflict resolution skills, communication skills and respect for each other.”
Goals of the ADVANCE Center include improving the workplace climate and encouraging the promotion of female STEM faculty, recruiting the next generation and increasing their retention, as well as promoting activities designed to increase gender equity.
Such activities include the LEAD Program, a collaboration between the ADVANCE team and the dean of faculties to enhance the skills of department heads. “The importance of the department heads can’t be overstated,” Richardson contends. “They set the tone and the climate for their departments. From negotiating a hire, determining raises, allocating research space and assigning teaching duties- that’s where the rubber meets the road.” The LEAD Program is designed to further department heads’ understanding of implicit bias in making decisions.
Department mini-grants are a Climate Change activity designed to support departments in their diversity efforts. Through this program, mini-grants are awarded to individual departments based on how well the proposed project supports the goals of the ADVANCE program. “Every year we are investing up to $30,000 in mini-grants,” notes Richardson. “A number of them have mentoring aspects – having advocates for female faculty and creating support networks. Others are designed to improve faculty skills, such as communication skills for female faculty who are not native English speakers.”
Improving faculty-staff interaction is another facet of the Climate Change initiative and it uses focus groups to explore the nature of such interactions. The findings show that the interaction between faculty and staff is complex and affected by a variety of factors, including context, personality, culture and generational differences. The ADVANCE Center is working to improve faculty/staff interactions by fostering an understanding of each group’s roles, building trust between faculty and staff members, and engaging departmental leadership in the effort.
Another Climate Change activity involves merit pool incentives, by which the ADVANCE team works with Christine Stanley, vice president and associate provost for diversity, and her advisory council to annually assess the progress made by academic colleges and offices at Texas A&M toward reaching diversity goals.
And finally, the ADVANCE team is working to address implicit biases, prejudices and stereotypes of women and minorities within the student population, and according to Richardson, “We have found that female faculty members are treated differently by both male and female students when compared to male faculty. For example, female faculty members are less likely than male faculty members to be addressed by students as ‘Dr.’ It sets a different tone and expectation.”
To combat this differential, the ADVANCE team promotes the idea of student diversity training to increase student awareness of bias and encourage them to respect all faculty members regardless of gender or ethnicity. “We’ve planned to raise awareness through a short video during spring new student orientations in the STEM colleges,” Richardson notes. “The students’ behavior influences that of other students and strongly impacts the climate in the classroom.”
While emphasizing that Texas A&M has made strides in increasing its diversity – a record number of Hispanic/Latino students are enrolled this semester – Richardson says there is more work to be done. “Texas A&M is such a warm, welcoming and friendly campus. The ‘Aggie Spirit’ is what we are known for. And yet we’re not known for our gender equity and diversity,” she contends. “Change takes time. We have a culture of respect and acceptance ingrained in the fiber of Texas A&M. As the university evolves, we can preserve all that is already excellent about Texas A&M, while striving for gender equity and increased diversity.”
Media contact: Lesley Henton, News & Information Services, at (979) 845-5591