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Broadening participation

Mentoring Female Assistant Professors Enhances Their Success

Mentoring Female Assistant Professors Enhances Their Success, illustrative photo

Credit: Lumo Images

The American Economic Association Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP) has tracked the representation of women at various ranks in the profession since the early 1970s. The statistics indicate a "leaky pipeline" from Ph.D. programs into tenured academic jobs. In 1998, for example, even though 30% of new Ph.D.'s in economics were earned by women, 26%, 14%, and 6% of the assistant, associate, and full professors of economics, respectively, were women in Ph.D.-granting departments in the U.S. Using multiple datasets including the NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates, researchers find a 14-21 percentage point gender gap in the probability of promotion to tenure in Economics, controlling for publications and citations.3 Further analyses point to a lack of research networks, role models, and mentors as potential causes of women's failure to advance in economics.2,4 Although this column describes a study about women in the academic economics profession, the results of the study likely apply to women in the academic computer science profession as well. The current percentages of women in computer science graduating with Ph.D.'s and in the three ranks follow a similar pattern, although less severe, to those in economics in 1998: new Ph.D.'s 25%; assistant 24%; associate 22%; and full 14%.5

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Randomized Controlled Trials (RCT)

To expose junior women to role models (senior women in economics) and to build peer networks of junior women in similar research areas, the National Science Foundation funded a pilot mentoring program in 1998, "CCOFFE: Creating Career Opportunities for Female Economists." The two-day workshop brought eight senior women economists and 40 junior women economists from the top universities to participate in a series of career development panels, and to work cooperatively on each other's projects as teams.

While many junior women appreciated the opportunities offered through CCOFFE, it was difficult to evaluate its effects since the mentees were handpicked from top universities. To address the evaluation issue, CSWEP initiated a new national mentoring program in 2004 with the support of the National Science Foundation and the American Economic Association. The program is called CeMENT, which stands for CSWEP Mentoring Program. What differentiates this new mentoring program from its predecessor (CCOFFE) and many others is the random assignment of applicants into treatment and control groups in each cohort, thus creating a panel of randomized controlled trials. Starting in 2004, every other year, more than 80 female assistant professors in economics have applied to the program. Each cohort of applicants is divided into groups by research area, and then randomly assigned to treatment or control status within each group. A treatment group typically comprises of 4-5 mentees and 1-2 mentors who are senior women in that field. Random assignment enables researchers as well as funding agencies to evaluate the effectiveness of the mentoring program.

The treatment. Junior women randomized into the treatment participate in a two-day workshop in conjunction with the American Economic Association annual meetings. Prior to the workshop, participants circulate working papers within their group. During the workshop, each group meets and discusses the working papers. Each cohort also participates in a series of panel discussions on important career-development topics, such as publishing, networking, earning tenure, grant application, teaching, and work-life balance. The two-day face-to-face meeting creates opportunities for junior women to become familiar with each other's research and exposes them to senior female mentors and role models in their field.

After the two-day workshop, mentoring groups typically stay connected by sending each other monthly email updates and meeting at professional conferences. Activity levels vary across groups. Members of successful groups read and comment on each other's working papers, grant proposals, and tenure statements, organize joint sessions at conferences, and host each other as seminar speakers at their institutions. Based on my own experience, first as a mentee in CCOFFE and then as a mentor in CeMENT, these groups communicate by email at least once a month to update each other on research progress, tasks accomplished in the past month, and goals for the following month. Members often seek and give advice. Monthly updates create both peer pressure and opportunities for direct or generalized reciprocity.

Random assignments enables researchers as well as funding agencies to evaluate the effectiveness of the mentoring program.

Communication and mentoring can become more intense around professional events like submission of a paper or grant application (when group members read and comment on the work), submission of the tenure dossier (when group members offer feedback and help to strategize), when individuals receive competing offers from other institutions (when group members help the individual identify the trade-offs involved in moving), or even life events like the birth of a child.

Monthly email messages typically stop when all members of a group receive tenure, although most group members continue to interact and help each other professionally after their mentoring group dissolves.

Interim results. Using data from the first three cohorts (2004, 2006, and 2008), researchers find significant treatment effects in terms of the three main predictors of successful tenure in Economics, the total number of publications, the likelihood of top-tier publications, and the total number of federal grants in treated women relative to those in the control condition.1

By three years after the intervention, participants in the treatment have two more publications than those in the control condition, and by the fifth year, those in the treatment group have three additional publications. When evaluating the magnitude of the treatment effects, one must bear in mind the differences in publication norms between economics and computer science. Unlike computer scientists who typically publish several short papers (5-10 pages) each year, an economist typically publishes 1-2 longer (40-50 pages) and more substantive papers each year. This thus represents an extra year of productivity for those who were mentored.

Another measure of career success in economics is top-tier publications, which refer to the top-five general-interest journals among more than 300 economic journals. At least one top-tier publication is often necessary for tenure promotion in many economics departments in research universities. Participants in the mentoring workshop were 20 percentage points more likely to have a top-tier publication after three years and 25 percentage points more likely after five years.

Women-to-women mentoring has been in the fabric of the computing field for a long time.

Lastly, obtaining a NSF or NIH grant is quite unusual among junior economists compared to computer scientists who are expected to fund their own Ph.D. students. By the fifth year, workshop participants had 0.4 more NSF or NIH grants than those in the control condition.1

Lessons learned. Although junior women in the treatment group on average are more successful than their control counterparts, considerable heterogeneity in activity levels exists among different groups. We summarize several features that might have contributed to the success of the program and characterize some of the more active groups:

  • Initial programwide co-located training workshop: this workshop creates opportunities for group members to get to know each other's work.
  • Regular email updates, or Skype discussion sessions: successful groups typically designate a mentee who starts the email conversation on a certain day of each month, which generates a thread of updates.
  • Face-to-face meetings at conferences that most group members attend: successful groups typically schedule their own work sessions to give feedback on each other's papers or grant proposals during a conference.
  • Substantive interaction around research, setting norms and expectations of continued input as careers progressed: more-productive members set a standard for the less-productive ones.
  • Procedural interaction around norms of the profession, explicitly communicating what is often unspoken.
  • Mentorship and sponsorship by senior mentors: effective senior mentors often introduce junior women to other senior colleagues and initiate workshop or seminar invitations.

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Impact of CeMENT in Academia

The interim results of CeMENT suggest that putting women in touch with other women with similar research interests across institutional boundaries is helpful, and that this type of mentoring program improves women's grant and publication records. As a result of the publication of the CeMENT evaluation, which establishes a benchmark for the effects of mentoring female assistant professors in the economic profession, similar mentoring programs have been established by various professional associations, such as the American Philosophical Association, the Chinese Women Economists Network, the Japanese Women Economists Network, and Association for the Advancement of African Women Economists. Subsequent programs do not use RCT to select a treatment and control group. Instead all eligible applicants are treated.

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Application to Academic Computer Science

Women-to-women mentoring has been in the fabric of the computing field for a long time. Systers, an email listserv, was founded by Anita Borg in 1987 and is still active with over 6,000 members today. Its members include academics, computing professionals, and students. Since 2010, the Computing Research Association Women (CRA-W) has held early career mentoring workshops for women and since 2013 mid-career workshops for women. Mentoring is a major feature of the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, sponsored by the Anita Borg Institute. One focus of the Academic Alliance in the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) is the retention of women in academia. Many of the lessons learned in CeMENT are already practiced in the computer science community. It is encouraging to see that many of the practices employed in the computer science community to improve academic retention have been validated in the CeMENT controlled study.

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1. Blau, F.D. et al. Can mentoring help female assistant professors? Interim results from a randomized trial. American Economic Review 110, 2 (May 2010), 348–352.

2. Blau, F.D., Ferber, M. and Winkler A. The Economics of Women, Men and Work. 6th ed. Pearson/Prentice-Hall Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2010.

3. Ginther, D.K. and Kahn, S. Women in economics: Moving up or falling off the academic career ladder? Journal of Economic Perspectives 18, 3 (2004), 193–214.

4. McDowell, J.M., Singell, L.D., and Slater, M. Two to tango? Gender differences in the joint decision to publish and coauthor. Economic Inquiry 44, (2006), 153–168.

5. Zweben, S. and Bizot, B. Taulbee Survey. Computing Research News 28, 5 (2016), 2–60.

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Yan Chen ( is the Daniel Kahneman Collegiate Professor of Information at the University of Michigan, and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Economics at Tsinghua University.

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The author thanks Rachel Croson, Janet Currie, Richard Ladner, and Laura Razzolini for their helpful comments.

Copyright held by author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2016 ACM, Inc.


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