August 19, 2022

Nancy Manley is the latest in a series of women leading STEM-related units at ASU

Growing up in Yugoslavia, Tijana Rajh knew men were okay with her becoming a scientist — as long as she understood there were limits to what she could achieve.

“There was a sense of, ‘OK, we’ll let you play ball.’ But there was this glass ceiling,” said Rajh, director of Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences.

Reich’s experience is not unique. Women make up less than 30% of the world’s scientific researchers, according to UNESCO data, and a report by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources found that women hold the least senior administrative positions in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

Donatella Danielli

“It’s still an old boys’ club in many ways,” said Donatella Danielli, director of ASU’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

ASU is changing that dynamic.

Over the past 18 months, ASU has hired four women to lead units in STEM-related fields: Rajh, Danielli, Patricia Rankin, chair of the Physics Department, and, most recently, Nancy Manley as director of life sciences (pictured above above).

It is important to note that ASU has not intentionally sought female candidates for those positions. Patrick Kenney, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the four women competed against men in the selection process and were hired, “because they’re all really great catches for us.”

“The first thing I think I should point out is that ASU got the best possible people it could,” Rankin said. “I don’t think I got hired because I was a woman.”

That said, the four women understand the importance of being in the positions they are in. Although they come from different backgrounds, they said they all experienced sexism in some way in their formative years as scientists and were told—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly—that their voices and ideas were not valued.

“You can be in a room and no one is listening, or you can say something and then a male colleague will say something similar, and he will be recognized and appreciated for that,” Manley said. “This happens all the time. It’s just kind of prevalent. I have been called aggressive for speaking up where men would otherwise be called proactive. So you have to constantly fight against that.

“That women are employed in these positions in fields that are considered predominantly male is very important to me.”

Now that they are heads of their own departments, the four women can fight against long-held prejudice. Equally important is the knock-on effect that their employment can create.

Portrait of the woman

Tijana Reich

Since Reich was hired, for example, the number of female faculty in the School of Molecular Sciences has increased from 12 to 16, and the number of female non-tenured faculty has increased from 11 to 16.

“We’re paying a lot more attention to trying to develop a diverse faculty,” Rajh said. “We’re fighting to show that they can do the job as well as the big guns.”

Female university students also benefit. If, in ASU’s STEM leadership, all they see are men, they will question the university’s commitment to diversity and their ability to become a director or department chair.

“When they’re mentored by a female and they see women in these roles, they think, ‘OK, I can go this far in science and math,'” Danielli said. “Maybe they didn’t get that message 30 years ago.”

“I’ve had female graduates and undergraduates tell me that having female leadership is important to them,” Manley added. “So I know it makes a difference.”

Last January, Danielli hosted a panel on women in mathematics leadership at the meeting of the American Mathematical Society. Its goal: to create support groups among female mathematicians.

“We also want to encourage or at least make women think about the possibility of taking a leadership position,” Danielli said. “Women who have already followed that path can provide perspective on what challenges we faced and why we chose to do it.”

These are all big-picture, society-changing issues. Sometimes, however, women taking leadership roles in traditionally male-dominated fields can be seen in small things.

The woman poses with a cup of coffee

Patricia Rankin

Rankin said one of the items on her to-do list after becoming chair of the Physics Department and hearing from female students was to make sure women’s bathrooms were stocked with sanitary products.

“That might not seem like a big deal, but actually, when you’re stuck in a department and you’re doing three-hour labs, it’s important to have somewhere you can go for things like that,” she said.

There is still work to be done. According to the American Institute of Physics, just more than 2,000 female students earned bachelor’s degrees in 2020, compared to more than 9,000 male students. Rajh said that 20-25% of the faculty in the School of Molecular Sciences are women, while more than 50% of the students are women.

ASU is poised to change those numbers — and, as evidenced by the hirings of Rajh, Danielli, Rankin and Manley — in a meaningful way.

“Once a problem is found, there’s a big, sustained push to make a change,” Rajh said. “I think that’s the best thing about ASU.”

Top photo: Nancy Manley is the new director of the School of Life Sciences. She began her position on August 1. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Scott Bordow

By admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *