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Virginia Tech Women’s Alliance kicks off a new year

September 8, 2017

Robin Queen, co-chair of the Virginia Tech Women's Alliance

Virginia Tech Women's Alliance
Robin Queen, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics, is a co-chair of the Virginia Tech Women's Alliance. A series of conversations last year around gender issues on campus helped shape the direction of the young organization, which launches its second year this week.

The Virginia Tech Women’s Alliance is just a year and a half old, but the group is already busy working toward their founding mission: championing an equitable and inclusive culture at the university.

In collaboration with other groups and caucuses on campus, the Women’s Alliance is tackling multiple components of an inclusive campus environment, including removing systemic barriers to advancement; promoting equity in hiring, promotion, and compensation; offering mentoring and networking opportunities; promoting access to quality childcare; and identifying and resolving campus equity and safety issues.

Through the Commission on Equal Opportunity and Diversity, the Women’s Alliance is involved in the University Council, which advises the university president on policy; it is the only group on the council to focus primarily on gender-equity issues.

The Women’s Alliance is led jointly by two co-chairs: Kimberly Carlson, an assistant professor of practice and director of the Business Leadership Center at the Pamplin College of Business, and Robin Queen, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics in the College of Engineering.

“It’s about having an ability to change policy, and the way to make that happen is to have a place in the governance process,” Queen said.

The first meeting of the Women’s Alliance for the 2017-18 academic year will be held Thursday, Sept. 14, in room 2410 at the North End Center. All members of the campus community interested in promoting gender equity are welcome to attend the meeting, which will help chart the organization’s course for the coming year.

The group’s approach has been shaped by a series of conversations the Women’s Alliance  hosted last year in partnership with the Office for Inclusion and Diversity. The events gathered women in a wide variety of roles at the university, including staff and instructor positions, to share the specific challenges they encountered.

“One of our primary goals is just getting women into the room to have conversations, so that we can identify and try to address important issues,” said Queen, who is also an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and the director of the Kevin P. Granata Biomechanics Lab.

Those sessions revealed a disconnect between formal reports on gender parity on campus and women’s reports of their own experiences. That disparity led the alliance to submit a report to the University Council and Virginia Tech President Tim Sands recommending the establishment of a university-level task force, which has since been convened and starts work this year.

In addition, Queen and Carlson decided to expand the Women’s Alliance executive committee, adding subcommittee chairs for tenured and tenure-track faculty, research faculty and instructors, A/P faculty and staff, and graduate students. While many concerns are common to women across campus, different position types also carry unique challenges that the subcommittees can work to identify and address.

Queen and Carlson expect that two areas the group will focus on this year are mentorship and networking.

“Women in certain areas of campus can feel isolated — someone might be the only female professor or postdoc in her department,” said Carlson.

“It does impact recruitment and retention: Getting good grad students in the door, attracting good faculty and staff who want to stay,” Queen said. “You have to find people you feel comfortable having conversations with about everyday topics, like finding childcare or connecting with a mentor, and we can help provide a place for people to have those conversations that they may not be able to have in their departments.”

The idea for the Women’s Alliance originated during an Advancing Diversity workshop in January 2016. Carlson, Queen, and their colleagues were discussing ways to integrate a group dedicated to gender-equity issues into the university’s governance structure.  

“We were talking around it, and finally someone said, ‘I move that we start a women’s alliance,’” said Queen. She and Carlson became co-vice chairs of the brand-new organization.

“We just jumped in. We came up with a mission and guiding principles, and we’re working on bylaws,” Carlson said. “We’re testing out this new structure. We’ve been in place for a year and a half, and we’re continually evolving to figure out the most effective processes for creating an inclusive environment on campus.”  

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