Education

The University of Louisville has received a $1 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to improve gender and racial equity in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Professor Olfa Nasraoui led the grant writing team. For her, helping to secure the grant was personal — something she’ll remember as her legacy. She is the only woman professor in U of L’s computer science department in the J.B. Speed School of Engineering.

“And before there was no woman, so that’s an improvement of one, right?” Nasraoui said. “This is an issue that’s national, nation-wide; it’s not just UofL.”

Nasraoui said the problem is systemic. Women, and minority women especially, face different barriers and biases as they work to succeed in academia. They are underrepresented in STEM faculty, and particularly at the highest level of full professorship.

“Those full professors are the ones who typically move to leadership positions where women can have a big influence on addressing these systemic issues,” Nasraoui said.

A team of U of L faculty and staff affiliated with the Speed School of Engineering, the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research and Innovation, the College of Arts and Sciences and others spearheaded the grant proposal. U of L collected data about gender and ethnic representation among university faculty, and proposed a plan to help change the numbers.

With the grant, U of L will work to:

  • change recruitment and hiring practices;
  • educate faculty about gender and ethnic bias through theater-based workshops, especially engaging faculty who serve on hiring committees;
  • create mentorships for young women faculty to help them navigate the practical duties of being a professor and running a research lab;
  • offer programs that assist faculty in their duties while they are experiencing life changes, including pregnancy and motherhood.

The ultimate goal of the initiative is to recruit, retain and promote more women faculty — and minority women especially — in STEM departments across the university.

“One of the big reasons is, in the end of the day, to also improve the situation for students,” Nasraoui said.

She said it is U of L’s goal is for the faculty to better reflect the student population, as well as to increase diversity in STEM fields.