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Chancellor’s Message: Advancing women in STEM fields

We can live up to our promise of diversity and inclusion only if we ensure that all individuals—students, faculty and staff—regardless of gender, have the opportunity to excel.

By Don Straney.

Hilo sealThe Exploring Diversity and Gender Equity (EDGE) project at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has completed its first two-year phase toward building a more conducive campus environment to recruit, retain and promote women faculty in science and engineering careers.

EDGE at UH Hilo is funded by the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program, which seeks to increase the participation and advancement of women faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields—a challenge directed at universities across the country—in order to develop a more diverse and therefore more globally competitive workforce. This is a challenge our local businesses face as well in hiring skilled employees on the island.

I serve as principal investigator of our program and Misaki Takabayashi, professor of marine science who currently serves as interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, is co-PI. Terrilani Chong is project administrator.

There is an important long-term goal here. Increasing the participation of women in STEM fields on our campus will strengthen the university in many ways—in our research, teaching, and community outreach—ensuring that all members of our university ‘ohana can fully participate in the increasingly global environment of higher education. In turn, this expands the impact that UH Hilo students, faculty and alumni have in the world.


The first phase of the UH Hilo EDGE project, through a series of surveys and focus groups, identified key challenges faced by our female STEM faculty in regard to their career advancement.

Overall, the findings suggest that the retention of female faculty is more of a challenge than their selection. These challenges include 1) unclear criteria for promotion and leadership roles, 2) gender salary inequities, 3) a negative approach toward women in STEM departments, 4) lack of childcare and family leave, and 5) lack of strong connection with the local environment and communities.

Both female and male faculty find it a challenge to balance career and personal life. The perception of gender inequity in career opportunities was found to be more pronounced among ethnically underrepresented faculty.

Not surprisingly, a general concern by junior faculty was Hilo’s social environment that many found to be lacking, especially for single faculty. Several participants in focus groups mentioned that Hilo is a better option for coupled faculty, implying that duo-career hires might be an advantage for supporting retention at UH Hilo.


We can live up to our promise of a diverse and inclusive institution only if we ensure that all individuals—students, faculty and staff—regardless of gender, have the opportunity to excel.

As we conclude phase one of our EDGE project, we are looking to build on the findings. We’ve recently submitted a new proposal for a second ADVANCE grant to design and implement activities and policy that will address our challenges in recruiting, retaining, and promoting female STEM faculty. During the next phase of the project we will look at possible approaches we could take, including taking a look at best practices at other universities.

With our island offering a uniquely diverse cultural and geographical environment, we are a very attractive institution from a STEM faculty point of view. We want to be attracting, retaining and advancing the best and brightest faculty, both female and male. We want the concept of a “UH Hilo ‘ohana” to be more than just a catch phrase—we want both women and men faculty to feel valued and supported by UH Hilo, the UH community, and the Hawai‘i Island community, with an abundance of opportunities for career advancement no matter the gender.


Don Straney

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