Are Women in Tech More Stressed Out?

By Robin Madell (San Francisco)

In a survey conducted at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) from 2008 to 2011 and funded through the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) ADVANCE program, female faculty indicated more stress and less satisfaction with work-life balance than their male colleagues.

Women were more likely to forego personal activities for professional responsibilities (66 percent of women compared to 47 percent of men), but also felt more strongly that their career had been slowed by personal responsibilities (50 percent of women compared to 23 percent of men). With respect to their time distribution at work, 50 percent of women respondents were dissatisfied compared to 32 percent of men. What’s more, the data from the self-study revealed that women at RIT are less successful than men in obtaining more advantageous starting packages, assignments, compensation, and work plans.

The goal of ADVANCE is to change these disappointing statistics, in part by working toward developing and implementing strategies to promote gender equity in academic STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) positions. Projects funded through ADVANCE promote systemic changes in academic settings to increase the representation of women in STEM and enhance career advancement. Since 2001, the NSF has invested over $130 million to support ADVANCE projects like the survey.

“The RIT study documents important elements of the STEM work environment,” says Beth Mitchneck, program director of ADVANCE at the National Science Foundation. “While some findings may be specific to academic settings, many stressors and areas of dissatisfaction transcend the work environment. Studies such as this provide at least a starting point for conversations about gender equity and work satisfaction throughout STEM and points of comparison for the STEM labor force in private industry and other settings.”

Taking Action

Based on the findings, researchers at RIT have started partnering with campus units to create tools, programs, and opportunities using innovative formats designed to ultimately increase the number and success of women faculty at RIT. The first order of business is to tackle issues related to work/life balance and career navigation for women faculty. The Glass Hammer spoke with Margaret Bailey, the principal investigator and director on the research and faculty associate to the provost for female faculty – as well as Kerry Ivers, NSF ADVANCE Connect@RIT’s project manager – to find out more about RIT’s plans and progress.

Bailey notes that part of the strategic goal for the study was to help inform how the university could craft a comprehensive institutional transformation strategy to move RIT closer to gender parity among its faculty – and ideally among its students. “The self-study was very organic in that it grew naturally from our common concern about why RIT has a lack of women students and a lack of female faculty role models in many departments within the university,” says Bailey, who is also a professor in RIT’s mechanical engineering department. “This concern evolved in a university where women students thrive academically – they graduate at higher levels and with higher GPAs than their male colleagues, and yet their representation is lower than one would expect based on national averages. Therefore we saw a need to conduct a thorough self-study.”

Bailey notes that the project goals include refining and strengthening targeted institutional structures, and aligning institutional, administrative, and informal systems to support progress. The project both enhances existing family-friendly, gender-neutral policies and implements new ones. Though still in the early stages of project rollout, Ivers reports that the Connect@RIT project already has several successes under its belt.

  • Policy revisions include a new mandatory tenure clock extension for all faculty that is triggered by the birth or adoption of a child.
  • This spring, social scientists on the team will conduct focus groups on two key faculty groups, including deaf and hard-of-hearing women and women of color. This qualitative research will explore the experiences of women in these groups and will provide an opportunity to refine grant offerings based on the findings.
  • The grant’s Connectivity series, which is designed to strengthen faculty social networking, will be initiated in a pilot at the upcoming Faculty Institute on Teaching and Learning scheduled at RIT on May 22, 2013.
  • A new project website will be going live within the next several weeks. The site will provide a wide range of information about project initiatives and resulting findings and research.
  • This summer, RIT will report a set of data to the NSF called the NSF Indicators, which track conditions and trends related to faculty recruitment, retention, and advancement by gender, race, and rank.

Looking Ahead

Ivers admits that as women in the technology industry review the study’s findings, some find elements of familiarity in them and some don’t, depending on their unique situation. “Even at RIT, we found wide disparities by college and department related to the evidence of barriers,” says Ivers. “Therefore, our findings are not universal, but instead they are heavily dependent on the culture and conditions of the individual units that make up the entire organization.”

Bailey recommends that despite these disparities, women in tech use the study’s findings to create mechanisms to eliminate isolation and build community. “It is important for women to understand that they are not the only one experiencing these issues, especially in technology fields,” says Bailey. “It is critical for women in technology to build wide networks and develop ownership of their career plans. In doing so, they will become better self-advocates and develop stronger self-awareness.”