Stronger Together

Georgia Tech's faculty is among the best in the world. And Tech’s top professors include women who have achieved prominence in their fields, including the traditionally male-dominated areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

Through its ADVANCE program, Georgia Tech is working to increase representation and advancement of women in academic, science and engineering careers. Tech’s ADVANCE program features six professors—one representing each college—who are not only exceptional researchers and teachers, but also serve as role models and advocates for women and minorities on campus.

These six women are accomplished faculty members and experts in their fields, and through the ADVANCE program are also giving back by helping to increase the representation and participation of women and minorities at the Institute. We asked these ADVANCE professors to talk about their experiences in academia and the work they do to create more equity, diversity and inclusion for those following in their footsteps.

What exactly do you do in your role as an ADVANCE professor?

Beril Toktay: I see the ADVANCE Professorship as a mixture of advocate, change agent, adviser and cheerleader. As an advocate, it is my job to surface issues and bring them to the attention of the administration. As a change agent, I collaborate both laterally and with the administration to make progress on those same issues. As an adviser to the administration, it is my role to share my thoughts honestly and constructively. And as a cheerleader, I elevate and celebrate individual and collective achievements.

Kim Cobb: I serve as liaison between the faculty and the administration as an advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion. At the same time, I work closely with members of the administration —from the president’s office to school chairs—to advise, coordinate and raise awareness of various initiatives. One of the most rewarding and fulfilling aspects of my role is to work alongside five other amazing ADVANCE Professors as we share best practices and build capacity and momentum for Institute-wide efforts.

Pinar Keskinocak: I listen via one-on-one and small group meetings to get a pulse from College of Engineering women, particularly faculty and graduate students, regarding their concerns on issues such as equity, work-life balance and leadership opportunities. I also gather and analyze data to better understand Georgia Tech’s current state and areas for improvement, and advocate for potential changes in policy or practices. One of the data-gathering activities we did as a team was to look at faculty hiring data, starting from applications, to interviews on campus, to offers, and then accept/reject decisions. We wanted to better understand this pipeline, especially considering the percentage of women and minorities at each stage.

Can you give an example of how you've advocated for or advanced the work of female and minority students, staff and faculty and what impact that has had?

Mary Frank Fox: One of my goals has been clarifying the evaluation process. I’ve done this by leading a team assessing Ivan Allen College school handbooks for clarity and continuity in guidelines and policies, as well as developing a document with the organizational factors (based on research) that support clarity and equity of evaluation. I participate in the dean’s workshops on reappointment, tenure and promotion, and have developed a set of practices that clarify criteria for promotion to full professor. These have been important because evaluation is the “lever for advancement.”

Dana Randall: It is exceptional and noteworthy that women on the faculty of the College of Computing are represented across all areas of the discipline. However, this is less true of the student body, and we continue to see certain sub-disciplines with far more gender balance than others. We have hosted various events to create a forum for women in less balanced areas in the College of Computing to be able to speak up and create a community, and give them access to women faculty and students in other areas with whom they can discuss opportunities and challenges.

Toktay: A good example is the Diversity and Inclusion Fellows program, which offers a one-year fellowship to approximately 20 faculty, staff and students who propose initiatives that contribute to diversity and inclusion on campus. This program fills the need for bottom-up diversity and inclusion initiatives that draw on the unique experiences and talents of the campus community. As co-director and co-founder of the program, I consult with each fellow in shaping their project, connect projects to areas of the Institute that would benefit from them and champion their adoption.

Women's issues have come to the forefront in today's cultural landscape: sexual harassment and abuse, gender wage gap, discrimination in STEM fields, and more. What issues do you feel are most pressing? What should we be focused on addressing first?

Catherine Ross: Not just one, but many issues are pressing. Thomson Reuters Foundation asked about 100 people in Britain, Italy, the United States, Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, India, Thailand, Brazil and Colombia what they saw as the biggest challenge for women. The overwhelming response was, “the world would be a better place for women if they had access to more and better quality jobs.” Of course, we know that access to higher quality education leads to a better quality job, which brings us back to the role of the Georgia Institute of Technology and other institutions of higher learning.

Fox: Key here are the subtlety and complexity of systemic discrimination that creates inequitable outcomes in salaries, positions and advancement. This is complex because it involves organizational climates, patterns of who is valued (and why), practices of evaluation and forms of inclusion or exclusion. These are pressing issues because so much of people’s lives occur in these organizational settings and the features of organizations shape outcomes for all.

Keskinocak: This is a tough one, and they are all somewhat related to each other. Women are less likely to stay or advance in the workforce, or seek leadership positons, especially if there is harassment, inadequate family support or discrimination. I think bias, whether it is implicit or overt, is still a big issue. This is true for women, and for underrepresented minorities as well. My perception is that while women are more easily accepted in junior-level roles, bias and other barriers become bigger, and more pronounced, as women advance in their careers.

Randall: Sexual harassment and unsafe work environments for women and various underrepresented groups are by far the biggest societal concerns across fields. None of these other issues around gender and identity can be addressed until we create an environment where everyone feels safe to speak up, contribute and be fully valued.

What in your opinion is the greatest challenge facing women on college campuses today? And what do you think can be done to meet and overcome that challenge?

Fox: A big challenge is the prevalence of the “pipeline model.” From this perspective, the issue becomes keeping women and other under-represented groups “in the pipeline” so that they emerge into careers in an “orderly and expected” progression. This view—introduced in the early 1980s—has governed many practices, policies and initiatives, with less than positive outcomes, despite good intentions. A more realistic and effective model is the “pathway” approach, which involves considerations of institutional influences like marriage and family, relations of power that favor or disfavor some groups, and organizational arrangements that create advantages and disadvantages in interactions, evaluation and rewards.

Randall: What often holds women back in certain academic disciplines is not their inability to “lean in” but rather the unwillingness of some men to “lean out.” The nature of many STEM fields, in particular, can be more challenging for certain women as everyone is struggling to make their own voice heard. This is compounded by implicit bias—unconscious stereotypes or assumptions about groups of people—which is now well-documented in job acquisition, letters of recommendation, teaching evaluations and so forth. While some of these biases undoubtedly can hinder careers, the wave of discussions around this topic has made many more people aware of these tendencies, and it has made others vigilant about countering such behavior in others.

Cobb: As a mother to four, I am particularly sensitive to the challenges related to childbirth, especially in the face of federal parental leave policies that lag those of all other developed nations. However, bias represents a more universal, and often more subtle, threat to the well-being of women. And it’s not just women—racial and ethnic minorities, members of the LGBT+ community, as well as the disabled face a range of biases, sometimes multiple biases at once. While it is important to continue our collective work as an institution to raise awareness about sources of bias and design policies to mitigate its effects, it is equally important to build a community where personal experiences are shared and valued, and where everyone sees themselves as an active participant in the solutions to these challenges.

Toktay: There are no silver bullet solutions, but it’s very important that those in leadership positions make it a priority to try to understand how people experience life on campus, and make a conscious effort to model inclusive behavior.

What obstacles have you personally faced as a woman in your field? Do you think conditions have improved over the years for younger women who are following your career path?

Ross: For me, this is a particularly potent question being both African American and a woman. The struggle to obtain a college education was a tedious and precarious one which was made more difficult because of limited family resources and persistent barriers of racism. In many instances, I was not selected, invited, referenced or acknowledged simply because of who I am and how I look. However, I took advantage of every opportunity that came my way, including volunteering at professional agencies, accessing scholarship and work-study opportunities, visiting universities and deciding that I would identify people who were supportive and with whom I could learn. While there are fewer obstacles today, we need only to look at the status of women (especially African-American women) to know we have much further to go.

Randall: Being a woman in mathematics and computer science creates challenges, but it also creates opportunities. I have personally experienced just about every possible type of discrimination at various stages of my career, but I’ve also had more access to leadership and scientific roles than I might have otherwise due to systemic efforts to achieve greater gender balance. These additional experiences helped ameliorate the unfortunate reality that other people made themselves less accessible, and certain opportunities may have been less readily available to me as a woman. To thrive, you have to learn to distinguish these experiences and maximize the settings that are supportive and inspiring. I believe that overall, recent progress by diversity-promoting programs (like ADVANCE) has been helping to increase access and support for younger women entering academia.

Cobb: I have faced my share of challenges, big and small, that left me feeling extremely isolated. But as a tenured, white professor, I also came to realize that I had the capacity and privilege to advocate for the kind of structural changes that could ease the path for women and other under-represented minorities. I’m thrilled to have a formal appointment as ADVANCE Professor, wherein I can engage for real-world change as part of a team of accomplished, hard-charging, like-minded women. It is a steep hill to climb, but the process of climbing towards equity and inclusion every single day is one of the most rewarding aspects of my professional life. The dozens of amazing young women I have mentored in my lab, in addition to my own three daughters, remind me that while our work will never be done, small wins accumulate through time to open doors for them that might have been closed for me, and that keeps me going.

How has Georgia Tech best supported the ADVANCE program efforts on campus?

Ross: Georgia Tech has supported the work of ADVANCE Professors beginning with our launch of the Equity, Diversity, and Excellence Initiative. Our work seeks to support each academic unit’s attempt to become a place that promotes gender equity, bias awareness, open communication on Institute climate and culture, and more significant interaction with higher administrators, while convening programs such as the Annual Diversity Symposium. The Institute has also supported our requests for data to better understand the hiring, interviewing and employment practices across colleges.

Keskinocak: We are grateful for the support from the highest levels, including our president, Institute Diversity, college deans, and beyond. For example, the Strategic Planning Advisory Group proposal, which was written with the leadership of ADVANCE professors along with others, had strong support from Institute Diversity as well as the colleges, and led to three new initiatives: the Diversity and Inclusion Councils, the Fellows/Ambassadors Program and the Personal Narrative Library.

Fox: Georgia Tech has taken values of equity and diversity and made them integral to the fabric of the Institution. This has occurred through bias awareness workshops, accountability of data collection, the amplified voices of previously marginalized groups and respect for ADVANCE goals.

This story was originally published in the Fall 2018 Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine (Vol. 94 No. 3)

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Melissa Fralick
Georgia Tech Alumni Association