Research-based Strategies for Systemic Institutional Change to Enhance Equity

Supporting women scientists as individuals is not enough to reach gender equality in our scientific institutions.  What is required is system-level attention to the structures, practices and cultures of these institutions and how they may perpetuate inequality, even unwittingly.  Changing these systems and structures is challenging, so it is helpful to have advice about how to go about such changes, as summarized in the GenPORT Research Synthesis 3 on Institutional Practices and Processes, led by Rachel Palmén and Alexandra Bitusikova. 

In our own effort to learn more about how to accomplish such systemic change, I and my colleague Ann E. Austin (Michigan State) have studied the experience of US institutions of higher education that are part of ADVANCE. This program, funded by the US National Science Foundation, has supported universities to carry out “institutional transformation” (IT) projects to strengthen gender equity among faculties of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.  Our six-year (2010-15) collaborative study has examined the work of ADVANCE IT universities that have tackled these problems in a systemic fashion.  

Each ADVANCE IT project has implemented a set of coordinated change interventions that work at multiple levels and in multiple areas of the institution.  Many projects do include faculty-targeted interventions that support women to develop their research careers and to carry them out with good personal, collegial and institutional support.  But they also incorporate system-directed efforts to

  • improve hiring, promotion and advancement procedures
  • identify and change policies that support career flexibility
  • educate institutional leaders about issues that affect women’s inclusion and success, and
  • raise the visibility of women STEM scholars. 

Our research team studied approaches to organizational change taken by pioneering ADVANCE IT grantees, asking: 

•     What strategies have been used to create institutional environments that encourage the success of women scholars?

•     Which strategies work and which don’t?  Why?

•     What strategies should be included in a change plan?

Our research shows that, while these multi-faceted projects are indeed challenging to design, implement and manage, they are gaining ground, both in improving conditions at the institutions themselves, and in helping all of us understand better how to undertake this complex work.

A key finding from our research is the importance of institutional context in these projects at all stages.  Context shapes the particular and local ways in which gender inequity presents itself, the particular solutions that fit the institution, and the particular ways of implementing them.  For example, one university may have difficulty hiring women faculty in STEM fields, while another one may be successful at hiring but does not retain them over time.  Attracting a woman to accept an academic post may be much harder at an institution located in a rural area compared to an urban institution where her spouse (often another academic or professional) has employment opportunities.   Because US public universities are regulated by the individual 50 states, one state may have strong, state-mandated policies for family leave, while another has little or no provision for this.  Thus each IT project team must identify what issues are salient in their local circumstance and devise specific solutions to fit these problems.  Similar contextual differences occur from country to country in Europe, as the GenPORT synthesis notes.

Each team must also identify how to implement its proposed solutions.  Higher education in the US is diverse:  A top-down policy solution developed by administrators may succeed at one university but may be poorly received in a place where academic departments and schools have high autonomy and where traditions of faculty leadership are very strong.  Even if the same strategy is selected, the mode of implementation might be different, depending on the institution’s culture.  For example, training faculty search committee members about implicit bias may be centrally provided or department-specific, mandatory or optional, delivered online or in-person.

To help those designing, planning and leading institutional change efforts, we distilled some of our key research findings into a practical resource, the StratEGIC Toolkit:  Strategies for Effecting Gender Equity and Institutional Change.  The Toolkit includes both text and video materials.  The Strategic Intervention Briefs describe 13 types of interventions often used by funded ADVANCE IT projects.  Each 4-to-6-page Brief identifies the rationale for a certain intervention and its potential contributions to gender equity as part of a larger strategic change portfolio, with multiple examples.  The Briefs describe interventions  to improving faculty recruiting, faculty development, work/life policies, and leadership development, and several more.

Second, the Toolkit includes fifteen Institutional Portfolios, each of which describes how a different university combined multiple interventions into an overall change portfolio.  The Portfolios demonstrate, through real examples, how the institutional context influenced each project team’s design: what they identified as core problems for STEM women faculty, what interventions they chose to pursue, how they designed and implemented those interventions, and how well they succeeded. 

New to the Toolkit in 2016 are a series of short video vignettes.  Eleven Program Perspectives share highlights of a particular institution’s story as told by one of its leaders.  These Perspectives feature innovative contributions and challenges of various IT institutions, while five Cross-cutting Perspectives combine insights from a variety of ADVANCE leaders about the broad processes of change.  For a video introduction to the Toolkit, visit

We concur with the GenPORT Synthesis that certain features help to foster change:  strong institutional leadership, transparency and accountability, and education about implicit bias.  We also concur that change takes time.  It is important to learn from each other and support each other in this important work!


Sandra Laursen, Ph.D.

Senior Research Associate and Co-Director

Ethnography & Evaluation Research (E&ER)

University of Colorado Boulder

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