WiSE celebrates 20 years of empowering women in STEM
Since 2000, the Women in Science and Engineering program (WiSE) has helped recruit over 50 new women faculty members to USC’s science, technology, engineering and math departments. (Image Source: iStock/Anastasia Usenko.)

WiSE celebrates 20 years of empowering women in STEM

The Women in Science and Engineering program at USC has recruited a record number of women faculty to the university and enabled a generation of women to advance their careers in the sciences. [6½ min read]
Margaret Crable

In 2000, the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences had just a dozen tenure-track women faculty members across its six science departments. At the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, there were only three. 

Two decades later, 70 women faculty members teach across the two schools’ science and engineering departments, thanks to the robust efforts of the Women and Science in Engineering (WiSE) program, spearheaded by USC’s Office of the Provost.

Through rigorous recruiting efforts, travel grants, research fellowships, child care support and educational workshops, WiSE has not only grown the number of women faculty at USC but also mentored a new generation of women entering advanced science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. 

“The founders of WiSE created an empowering community for young women on our campus. And as a scientist myself, I value the importance of peer relationships as you learn and advance in your field. They have done incredible work these last two decades, and I look forward to many more years filled with growth and accomplishment,” says USC president Carol L. Folt. 

Women’s work  

Women face unique challenges in the work force, and especially in the world of academia. Pregnancy can disrupt careers at a pivotal early stage when many are vying for coveted professorships. Child care or elder care demands, which fall disproportionately to women, often prevent women from attending important conferences or undertaking field work.

Unlike their male counterparts, women in the academy don’t usually have a stay-at-home spouse to manage the home. Many have a partner with an equally challenging career, which means a “two-body problem”: competition to decide who follows whom to a job opportunity. 

Few women occupy high academic positions, which can dampen the spirits of women looking for career advancement. Only 16% of university deans and 21% of full professors were women in 2018.

On the upside, women tend to have a broader range of skillsets then men, which provides them with more career choices. However, to keep talented women from leaving STEM in pursuit of other interests, the field must be attractive. Conflicts with child-rearing and difficulty in attaining leadership positions, may make many women avoid academic work in STEM. 

WiSE beginnings 

In 2000, USC received a $20 million from an anonymous donor for the express purpose of increasing the representation of women in science and engineering. A task force of faculty members formed to provide input on how to use the funds. 

“[The university] went to the group who needed the help and asked them what they needed or what would have been helpful earlier in their career,” says Jessica Parr, associate professor (teaching) of chemistry at USC Dornsife. “A lot of the things that have come out of it, such as child care subsidies, were nearly unheard of in universities before.”

This task force evolved into the WiSE program. They decided to allocate half of the funding to recruiting more women faculty members and the other half to programs that would increase the pipeline of younger women interested in STEM careers, particularly academic ones, through outreach to middle school students and undergraduate and graduate student mentoring. 

Hanna Reisler, Lloyd Armstrong, Jr. Chair for Science and Engineering and professor of chemistry at USC Dornsife, is one of the founding members of WiSE. “The mentorship program provided by WiSE has helped many women faculty with their career progress, especially when they were the only women in their departments,” says Reisler. 

One of the program’s strengths is its efforts to address challenges on a field-by-field basis. 

“Every discipline has its own problem,” says Leana Golubchik, director of WiSE, Stephen and Etta Varra Professor and professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at USC Viterbi. “The computer science pipeline is very small, while in life sciences women start out at parity at the undergraduate level but the number of faculty is much smaller. The purpose of the program is to identify these unique barriers and remove them.” 

WiSE is constantly reevaluating and adjusting to fit current needs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, women have taken on much of the homeschooling responsibility and sidelined their careers. To combat this trend, WiSE offered funding for in-home child care assistance to faculty affected by the pandemic. 

Sisterhood to Ph.D. hoods

For Rebecca Peer, who earned her Ph.D. in engineering from USC Viterbi in 2019, WiSE was a welcome change to her prior academic experience. She’d had a single woman professor throughout her four years as an undergraduate at Saint Francis University. Arriving at USC with a top-off fellowship from WiSE, she attended talks and joined the WiSE Ph.D. advisory board. 

“It was eye opening. You learn what it’s like to be a woman in academia and how to have a career as a female with a Ph.D.,” says Peer. “It was a very supportive environment for people to ask questions and figure out stuff like how to ask for raises or manage child care.”

Geological sciences graduate Renee Wang ’16 cites WiSE as instrumental to helping her earn a prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Grant from the National Science Foundation. “WiSE hosted a help session for people who were interested in applying and it was super helpful,” says Wang. “There was a professor who actually sits on these panels and reviews applications who was great.” 

Wang is now working towards her Ph.D. at Caltech and notes that it’s only been since 1970 that Caltech admitted women. “They didn’t want to take space away from men so they just added some extra spaces for women,” says Wang. “And, it’s still 70% men [in the graduate program].” 

To USC’s credit, the university has accepted women since its founding year. 

WiSE in 2040

What’s next for WiSE in the decades to come? 

“We’re going to keep going; it’s never a done thing,” says Golubchik. They’re now focusing more attention on bringing women into advanced university leadership roles like dean and department chair positions. WiSE has also started a parallel track for industry careers. 

“The majority of our alumna are going into private industry. We’re working on forming partnerships with companies, providing internships and other professional development programs,” she adds.

Reisler has her eye on a number of new goals for WiSE including increasing the ethnic diversity of WiSE members, enhancing child care options on campus and reducing the impact of implicit bias in recruiting, retention and advancement of women faculty. 

Alumna among us

WiSE’s most powerful asset moving forward could be their alumnae, who are spreading the gospel of the program both at USC and beyond. Parr started at USC as a graduate student in 2002, shortly after WiSE’s formation. “I benefited from travel grants and then, in my last year as a Ph.D. student, I organized the first career pathways alumni conference that explored alternative careers to academia,” says Parr. 

She now oversees WiSE’s undergraduate summer research program, which pairs students with professors for research projects spanning 8 to 10 weeks. In 2020, student researchers focused on topics like OLED technology, such as that used in flat-screen televisions, and wheelchair reconfiguration to improve posture. 

Since graduation, Wang has returned to WiSE to talk about her career path with current undergraduates and has helped to edit essays for students applying to grad school. She’s also mentoring a class of students at Westridge School, an all-girls school in Pasadena, California, where they read research papers and conduct science experiments.  

“When you go through the kind of program that really impacts the way that you did things, and that was really helpful and supportive, inevitably you’re going to want to share it,” says Peer, who is now a lecturer in civil systems engineering at the University of Canterbury. After becoming her own WiSE success story, she’s focused on making sure her female students feel supported in their field, paying the WiSE experience forward.