(Article posted in Faculty Voice on December 6, 2013)


KerryAnn O’Meara, Co-Director, UMD ADVANCE Program for Inclusive Excellence

Many readers will be familiar with the National Science Foundation’s Institutional Transformation ADVANCE grants, which provide U.S. institutions the opportunity to diagnose and design interventions to address issues of gender equity and work environment for women faculty members in the sciences and social sciences. Beginning in 2010, UMD ADVANCE began diagnosing and designing strategies to improve the retention and advancement of women faculty. A critical ingredient in this work is the advancement of agency. The success of this project is dependent on groups of committed faculty members and administrators working together, with collective agency, to diagnose and address gender inequity across the campus.

Agency has been studied in many social science fields and defined in various ways. The definition of agency we use is closest to that of Amartya Sen’s (1985): people’s ability to act on goals that matter to them. In the ADVANCE program, we aim to increase the agency individual faculty members feel about their own career advancement and professional growth. We simultaneously seek to advance the collective agency faculty members, administrators, and mentors assume to better retain and advance women and under-represented minorities.

We have found sharing information as often and transparently as possible enhances individual and collective sense of agency, and catalyzes individual professional growth and organizational change. Evidence from over 100 interviews with faculty members, observations of peer network meetings, three years of program evaluations, survey analysis, and countless individual examples, prove the old adage that “knowledge is power.” Indeed, data can be a powerful way to catalyze change and provide for accountability.  Information also helps us “contain attention” to what matters to us, and feel more comfortable in stepping into the often complicated projects we want to address.

Here are just five examples of how UMD ADVANCE (a collective partnership of many) strives to share information in ways that enhance individual and collective agency:

♦ Within our peer networks, we share examples. When I say examples, I mean personnel narratives for career advancement, teaching portfolios, research grants, and career award applications. Whenever we can get our hands on the thing a faculty member wants to do—we find an example, and we share it and discuss together the strengths and weaknesses of the example and how we might improve on it. Similarly, when ADVANCE was working with the Provost’s office on the parental leave policy, we began our process by collecting examples from peer institutions. Examples enhance agency by providing people a sense of context for the tasks they are to undertake, and by showing them that there is rarely only one best way to accomplish that task.

♦ Within our schools and colleges, we provide benchmark data that can be used in personal professional assessment. The ADVANCE Program’s Dashboard project provides benchmark data on faculty salaries by career stage, faculty demographics, and average time to promotion in each college. Although as a public institution, much of this information could be found in disparate places, the ADVANCE Program brought these data together under one rubric so faculty members could understand their salaries and time to promotion relative to others, and identify where the real demographic challenges lie. Faculty members who have logged in and used the Dashboard—whether for salary negotiations or for mentoring related to going up for Full Professor▬have commented on how helpful this information was to their career. One department chair called it “antiseptic for the system.” It is often said that academic reward systems operate as much by misperception, as perception. The Dashboard combats urban legends, misinformation, and incomplete information and can be used for college benchmarking of diversity goals as well as individual career planning. It enhances agency by providing a valuable foundation of information to start from in pursing equity and professional growth goals.

♦ As an institution, we conduct a faculty work environment survey every other year and publish the results on a public website (see below). Each college shares the data with their faculty and there are open discussions of the results. In 2013-2014, each college is designing a response to specific challenges found in their college reports, and making those plans for improvement public. Of course, many other colleges and universities do assessments of climate and work environment. Yet often, the results are shared sparingly, and there is rarely any real follow-up. However, by making the results public at UMCP and by asking colleges to make their action projects known, we make ourselves accountable to results. In this way, data enhances awareness of goals, as well as achievement of concrete improvements.

♦ We make sure faculty members and administrators know about work-life policies. The ADVANCE Program, in partnership with the Offices of Faculty Affairs and Legal Affairs, has taken all of the University of Maryland work-life policies and placed them in an easy to read “Frequently Asked Questions” document. In addition, our ADVANCE professors have made presentations on work-life policies to department chairs in each college. This information can be used by deans, department chairs, and individual faculty members to understand how our parental leave, stop the clock, part-time tenure track and other policies work, who qualifies, and how they can access them. This process is still new, and we routinely encounter faculty members who did not know these policies are equally available for women and men, for adoption and birth, and can be used in combination. When you provide a junior faculty member such a document, he or she can go into a meeting with the department chair secure in knowing their benefits. This enhances their agency in accessing the right policies at the right time.

♦ Finally, we operate systems of knowledge exchange. We have multiple peer networks working together across campus. Some are focused on career advancement, others on leadership development. We have had in-house talent provide workshops on personal branding, being strategic about service commitments, implicit bias, requirements for grant submissions and research awards, strategic communication, and the kinds of things that really matter to promotion and tenure committees reviewing applications.  We bring together groups of women –and women and men – to exchange insider knowledge, tell stories of living through failed attempts, and to share best practices. This knowledge exchange affirms experiences, adds to self-efficacy and makes our culture more collaborative.

Although our efforts are far from complete, UMD’s ADVANCE project has had wide participation from every college on campus, involved men and women, and high participation from faculty members of color. Our project has always had the full participation and support of executive leadership (president, provost, associate provosts, deans), has leveraged local talent in full professor women faculty members as ADVANCE professors in each college, and has engaged full participation from tenure track faculty members across campus (not just in STEM and in the Social Sciences). From such a strong base can come great change through the many ways in which we strive to advance agency. We believe structural and cultural change to intentionally share information, in transparent ways, is in of itself a form of institutional transformation for gender equity. We are glad to be a part of that work.

For more information on the UMD ADVANCE Program’s activities and research and evaluation efforts please visit our website.


Sen, A. K. (1985). Well-being, agency and freedom: The Dewey lectures 1984. Journal of Philosophy, 82(4), 169-221.

Source: http://imerrill.umd.edu/facultyvoice1/?p=3...
AuthorKerryAnn O'Meara