Laurie Burns McRobbie

"Representation, Role Models, and Strengthening the Pipeline"


I am truly honored to be able to be with you tonight, and to be among so many distinguished and accomplished women.

Michael could not be here, but he sends his greetings, and joins me in congratulating the women whose accomplishments we are celebrating today, as well as the achievements of all of the women in this room. Indiana University is very proud of you.

If he were here this evening, Michael would be among the first to acknowledge how crucial gender and racial diversity are to the quality of IU as an institution and to its academic excellence.

Women Faculty at IU Over Time

But he is certainly is not the first IU president to hold this conviction. In 1887, 20 years after Sara Parke Morrison’s admission as the first female student at IU, IU’s seventh president, David Starr Jordan, wrote the following note to the Board of Trustees:

“A good many of the friends of the University are interested in having a woman appointed to some position in the institution. There can be no doubt that a woman of scholarship, tact, social experience, and maturity of mind and character could be of great value to the University. It is also true that a woman whose special scholarship was not such as to place her on a fair equality with the men in the Faculty could not succeed as an occupant of a Chair in the University.

“Women who have had the requisite training and who possess the other qualities desired are very rare. I know of only one . . . in this state, and I doubt if she could be induced to come here.”

It wasn’t until 1901, fourteen years later, that IU’s first full-time female faculty member was induced to come to Bloomington. Mary B. Breed was an assistant professor of chemistry.

By 1922, the year IU appointed its first women full professors, 8% or 17 of the 192 full-time faculty members and directors were women. That year, Lillian Gay Berry, a professor of Latin, and Juliette Maxwell, the director of physical education for women, were promoted on the same day.

We’ve made some progress both in numbers and proportion since that time nearly a century ago. In 1969, with the rise of the second wave of feminism, psychology professor Peggy Intons Peterson conducted an AAUP study on campus, which revealed that 11%, or 143, of Indiana University’s 1300 faculty members were women. By 1983 that percentage had grown to 19%. By 1997, the numbers had more than tripled over the previous 30 years, with 27%, or 378, of our 1400 full-time faculty members being women. I should note here that to facilitate comparison with IU’s early history, the numbers I have just presented do not include librarians, which would have increased the numbers.

While these percentages show steadily increasing opportunities for women faculty on our campus, we still have a long way to go. Analyses done by the Office of Affirmative Action illustrate that women remain underrepresented—that is, out of line with the number of qualified individuals in the national pool for that discipline—in most of the schools on campus. In 1997, women were underrepresented in all but three schools on campus, and in all but two departments in the College. Those schools were Library and Information Sciences, Nursing, and the University Libraries—all considered traditionally “female” fields. In the College, only in Afro-American Studies and Apparel Merchandising was the national pool of qualified women fully represented. I should also note that our first African American woman faculty member was appointed in Afro American Studies in 1971, twenty years after the first African American man joined the IU faculty.

Today, the picture for IU Bloomington is somewhat improved. The fall 2007 Affirmative Action Study indicates that four schools are effectively utilizing the national pool of qualified women applicants. These are Library and Information Sciences, Nursing, the University Libraries, and my own school, Informatics. Women are under utilized in 26 of the 40 departments in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The picture is not brighter for minorities, which are underrepresented in 14 of the 15 schools on campus and 23 of the 40 departments in the College.

These numbers, painting as they do a simultaneously good news/bad news picture, underscore the importance of the achievements we are celebrating tonight. It is not easy to rise in an environment where role models and perhaps mentors may be scarce, where much may be demanded of the few female faculty members in a department rightly looking to boost the diversity of its committees and administrative efforts, where there may still be lingering questions about the ability of women to successfully juggle the demands of career and family. Every career milestone you’ve reached is one more bright light for the next generation, a little bit more of a tilt towards the good news picture.

OWA's Mission and the Value of Team Work

Various IU offices and leaders have worked hard to achieve the progress represented by these increasing numbers. The Office for Women’s Affairs works to promote and further gender equity and personal security for women on the Bloomington campus. Partnering with the Office of the Provost, the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, and faculty governance, OWA contributes significantly to helping IU achieve parity and to helping the various schools and departments set hiring goals and increase representation.

But increasing the numbers is only part of the solution to the problem. Role models, strengthening the pipeline, and culture change must all figure into our efforts.

The Importance of Role Models

It is so important in an educational context that young people have role models with whom they can identify. I am sure each of the women whose accomplishments we are celebrating today can point to a role model who inspired her to achieve. For me, it was my mother, who in 1962 became only the second woman to serve on the Ann Arbor City Council. I consider myself very fortunate to have been raised by a woman who understands that part of being a good mother is to show her daughters how to set goals, achieve them, and embrace leadership opportunities.

I recently read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that focused on the importance of role models, particularly those with children. It pointed out that such role models make a huge difference for the graduate student who is attempting to take the next big step along the tenure track. The author noted that, “while undergraduates are influenced simply by seeing a female faculty member, graduate students need to see that she can have children as well as a career.”

In Informatics, where Dean Bobby Schnabel is committed to making the school a national exemplar for gender and racial diversity, a recent event honoring Informatics faculty who have made a difference to female students in the school produced these kinds of testimonies from students:

“Over the years, this professor has put together panels on surviving grad school, navigating the job market with a significant other, and organized prospective student visits. Thanks to her support, many students, male and female alike, have gained the confidence and comfort to succeed.”

“This professor made it her mission to reach out to every female undergraduate who took her course (there weren’t many of us!). She encouraged me to apply for an AT&T research internship, which I got. That experience changed the direction of my career.”

Providing role models in crucial to boosting participation, and this is especially true in the physical sciences. At our own institution, about 12% of faculty in the physical sciences are women, while 23% of the national pool of qualified applicants are female. The Women in Science program, an initiative begun by the NSF and championed here at IU by the Office for Women’s Affairs, is an essential resource in this regard.

Culture and Climate Change

In many cases, it is a matter of working toward climate and culture change. Tom Guerin, our new Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, and Dean Alex-Assensoh are collaborating on a number of fronts and with a number of others to attempt this. And as other institutions do from IU, they are borrowing best practices from other universities.

Let me tell you briefly about one very interesting program developed by my alma mater, the University of Michigan. The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching has formed the CRLT Players, a troupe of local professionals and student actors. They use interactive theater to engage audience members in thinking and talking about issues of pedagogy, diversity, and inclusion. For instance, one gender-focused vignette might portray a conversation between a male department chair and a female faculty member in which the chair is gently chiding the faculty member for not following through on some obligations. The faculty member offers explanations and excuses. The roles are then reversed, showing a female chair and a male faculty member having the same interaction. The workshop following the sketch promotes discussion of the ways gender influences our perceptions.

Rick Van Kooten, chair of our physics department, recently attended a CRLT workshop and is hoping to bring the resource to IU.

Stem and Pipeline Issues

Another part of addressing the underrepresentation problem is increasing the numbers in the pipeline. When I took on the role of first lady nearly two years ago, one area that jumped out immediately came from my technology background, and that is STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). It is a current national and state priority, given the shift to the information economy of the 21st century, and particularly so for women and minorities. This is partly a matter of pragmatics; we are projecting shortages of doctors, engineers, scientists, and other professions that will fuel Indiana’s, and the nation’s, knowledge-based industries. It’s only logical that we should look to populations that have been disproportionately underrepresented in the past to meet the workforce demands of the future.

But the lack of women and minorities in technical fields is first and foremost a matter of equity. The highly paid jobs of the future, particularly here in Indiana where the life sciences are becoming such a major part of our 21st century economy, will require at least basic competency in math and science. And even beyond the life sciences, many jobs will rely on a workforce that is scientifically literate as manufacturing becomes increasingly automated and sources of information are increasingly digital.

So it is critical to boost teacher quality in elementary, middle, and high schools, and to ensure that they are equipped to foster interest and competency in young women, as well as young men, even when they may not be motivated to seek a career in a scientific or technical field.


It is up to all of us to do our part to continue to make progress. The current and next generation of IU women scholars, artists, and scientists will have more advantages in this regard than those women whose accomplishments we celebrate today. They will likely have spouses and partners who are more committed to the dual career model than in the past. Societal norms will more fully support their professional pursuits. They will have a clear awareness of the barriers that continue to exist. They will work at an institution whose leadership is fully committed to achieving parity and equitable representation for women faculty. And thanks to all of you, they will have more role models to help them chart their path toward success.

Again, my happiest congratulations to the women we honor this evening.

Thank you very much.