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These women are leading the charge for more diversity in STEM

Nancy Manley latest in series of women heading STEM-related units at ASU

Portrait of ASU Director Nancy Manley
August 19, 2022

As she grew up in Yugoslavia, Tijana Rajh knew men were OK with her becoming a scientist – as long as she understood there were limits to what she could accomplish.

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

Rajh’s experience isn’t 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, math).

Donatella Danielli

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

ASU is changing that dynamic.

Over the last 18 months, ASU has hired four women to head units in STEM-related areas: Rajh, Danielli, Patricia Rankin, chair of the Department of Physics, and, most recently, Nancy Manley as director of the School of Life Sciences (pictured above).

It’s important to note that ASU didn’t purposely seek female candidates for those positions. Patrick Kenney, dean of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said all four women competed against men in the selection process and were hired, “because they’re all really big catches for us.”

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

That said, the four women recognize the importance of being in the positions they’re in. Although they have 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 nobody’s listening to you, or you can say something and then a male colleague will say something similar, and he will get acknowledged and credited for it,” Manley said. “It happens all the time. It’s just sort of pervasive. I have been called aggressive for speaking up where in other cases men would be called proactive. So you just sort of are having to constantly fight against that.

“That women were hired in these positions in fields that are considered to be primarily male is very important to me.”

Now that they are the heads of their departments, the four women can fight against that long-held bias. Just as important is the trickle-down effect their hires can create.

Woman's portrait

Tijana Rajh

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

“We are paying so much more attention to try to develop a diverse faculty,” Rajh said. “We’re fighting to show that they can do the work the same as the big guns (men) could.”

Female undergraduate students also benefit. If, in ASU’s STEM leadership, all they saw was men, they’d question the university’s commitment to diversity and their chance to become a department director or chair.

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

“I’ve had female graduate and undergraduate students tell me that having female leadership matters to them,” Manley added. “So I know it makes a difference.”

Last January, Danielli organized a panel on women in math leadership at the American Mathematical Society meeting. Its purpose: build support groups among female mathematicians.

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

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

Woman posing with coffee mug

Patricia Rankin

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

“That may not seem a big deal, but, in fact, when you’re stuck in a department and you’re doing three-hour labs, having somewhere you can actually go nearby for things like that is important,” she said.

There’s 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 20–25% of the faculty in the School of Molecular Sciences is female while more than 50% of undergraduates are female.

ASU is out 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 difference,” Rajh said. “I think this is the greatest thing about ASU.”

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