New Award Honors Advances by Women Faculty

A new faculty award co-sponsored by the Trustees Council of Penn Women and the Office of the Provost recognizes the strides made by women faculty at Penn—and the distance still to be traveled toward gender equity at the University and in higher education generally.

Sherrill Adams, professor of biochemistry at the School of Dental Medicine, was the first recipient of the TCPW/Provost’s Award for contributions to advancing the role of women in higher education and research at Penn, which includes a $5,000 prize. In her more than 30 years teaching at the University, Adams has served as chair of her department and of the Faculty Senate, championed gender equity and family-friendly administrative policies, and earned a reputation for mentoring junior faculty.

“I can think of no single person, male or female, who has done more over the course of a career to advance the role of women in higher education, and more particularly here at Penn,” said Penn Provost Vince Price, who presented the award at a reception in April.

Price noted the strong endorsement Adams’ nomination received from junior faculty, quoting from letters of support sent to the faculty committee that made the selection. “I was struck by how deeply personal many of the observations were and how much they emphasize the personal influence that Sherri has had,” he said.

One writer described a time when she was “frustrated and considering leaving the University” and a conversation with Adams left her “re-energized and hopeful that I had a chance to succeed here at Penn.” She called herself “a true testament” to Adams’ “commitment to nurturing, advancing, and supporting junior faculty.” Another declared that Adams’ advocacy has “has led to changes in the University atmosphere, making Penn a better place, not only for women faculty, but for all faculty.”

Adams expressed gratitude for TCPW’s many efforts over its more than 20 years of existence on behalf of women at Penn. “I’ve been fortunate to work with the committee on advancement of women faculty and to observe firsthand what a wonderful job you do,” she said.

She also paid tribute to women faculty pioneers Phoebe Leboy, emeritus professor of biochemistry at the Dental School, and Helen Davies, professor of microbiology—who “have been working for gender equity on Penn’s campus for 40 years and have created opportunities for all the women who came after them”—and to the participants in the 1973 College Hall sit-in that gave rise to the Penn Women’s Center and the women’s studies program. 

“The sit-in was the result of a lack of response of the administration to the concerns of women,” Adams said. “Since that time we’ve had two highly successful women presidents, Judith Rodin and Amy Gutmann. And four of our 12 schools have women as deans.”

Nevertheless, she added, women make up only 28 percent of Penn’s faculty, and are concentrated mostly in the junior professorial ranks. “Furthermore, the numbers of women on the faculty have really increased only incrementally over the last 10 years.”

“We’re getting close to parity at the junior ranks,” Adams said, “but only 18 percent of our full professors are women, and only 17 percent of our department chairs are women.”

A recommendation by the Provost’s Office and the Faculty Senate that each school develop guidelines for mentoring “has effected a culture change for young faculty,” Adams said, so that “every young faculty member should expect to have excellent mentoring regarding promotion expectations, regarding their research, and regarding how they set their priorities to balance their family life with their work life.” While no system is perfect, “the guidelines are there,” she added. “We’re monitoring it. We’re trying to make sure it happens.”

Adams also cited the Penn Forum for Women Faculty, a new organization of which she is currently president, whose governing council includes women from all schools and faculty ranks. “Its mission is to build a community of women scholars to provide skills-building and networking opportunities, and to engage the administration on issues that are important for women.

“As these initiatives become part of the culture at Penn, we will create an environment where women faculty will not only succeed, they will thrive,” Adams said. 


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