Campus News

New program helps women persist, overcome bias in STEM

Two women scientists working in a lab.


Published September 20, 2021

Liesl Folks, provost, University of Arizona.
“Our aspiration is to provide them with understanding and strategic tools that will support them staying long term in STEM careers. ”
Liesl Folks, provost, University of Arizona and principal investigator
The NAVIGATE Project

Institutions committed to helping women succeed in STEM careers can now utilize a new training program designed to equip women graduate students with the tools to navigate gender-based career bias and discrimination.

The free training materials are an outcome of a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) grant called The NAVIGATE Project, a collaboration between investigators at UB and California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) that aims to increase the number of women STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates who persist in their chosen disciplines and achieve leadership roles.

“Despite widespread efforts and industry demand to increase the participation of women in STEM careers, they continue to be underrepresented and report frequently experiencing bias in STEM workplaces, which in turn causes many to leave STEM fields,” says Liesl Folks, a principal investigator on the project and volunteer professor in the UB Department of Electrical Engineering.

In 2019, women made up about half of the U.S. workforce but only 37% of the STEM workforce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The NAVIGATE Project aims to increase this number by teaching women graduating with STEM degrees how to confront discrimination, both interpersonally and organizationally.

“Our aspiration is to provide them with understanding and strategic tools that will support them staying long term in STEM careers,” says Folks, who served as dean of the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences from 2013-19 and is now senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Arizona.

A key component of the training program is a set of 10 peer-reviewed case studies that explore issues related to gender-based bias, inequity and discrimination in the STEM workplace. The cases are based on real life experiences of women at work.

“Each case takes the form of a brief but contextually rich, story-like scenario that entails a dilemma that the protagonist of the case must resolve,” says Nancy Schiller, a co-principal investigator who is the co-director for the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science and a former UB librarian. “This type of dilemma case is designed to explore the practical contingencies and consequences of personal decision-making and promote strategic problem-solving, with the ultimate goal of helping students develop skills for navigating the power dynamics of the workplace.”

The case studies were combined with invited keynote speakers to create a formal training program that was then carried out with three cohorts of women STEM graduate students at UB. The use of social media tools was incorporated to provide additional engagement and support to the participants.

Women who have participated in The NAVIGATE Project report that it helped them recognize that the gender bias and harassment they have experienced in science and engineering workplaces, labs and classrooms is not their fault, and they are not alone,” says Coleen Carrigan, a principal investigator on The NAVIGATE Project and an associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Cal Poly. “They have told us how relieved they are to have these moments of consciousness-raising about sexism and bias, which allow them to work with other women to devise strategies to combat these discriminatory and unfair treatments.”

While the training tools were designed for women enrolled in graduate STEM degrees, some of the materials can also be utilized for groups of early-career women in STEM organizations or undergraduate-level seniors in STEM.

The NAVIGATE Project is funded by an NSF Research Traineeship award in the Innovations of Graduate Education Track. Additional investigators from UB include Glenna Bett, associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Laurene Tumiel-Berhalter, associate professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Family Medicine. Both departments are part of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

A comprehensive set of training materials is now available online.