Mason School Professor Receives $1M Research Grant to Increase the Participation and Advancement of Women in Information Technology

According to recent studies, approximately 28 percent of information systems faculty at U.S. colleges and universities are women. Eleanor Loiacono is an Associate Professor of Business Analytics at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business and was named the principal investigator for a $1M National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that will address this gender disparity among information technology faculty with hopes to increase the participation rate and advancement of women in the field.

The Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Information Technology or ImPACT IT project is a three-year William & Mary-led grant through which Loiacono and research colleagues at five other universities will look at the systemic gender and minority issues at the association and department levels of the Information Technology (IT) field, especially as it relates to advancement of women to the full-professorship level.

“We’re focusing on how industry associations and universities can support female associate professors make the transition to full professors. If you want women to stay in the profession, we need to look at those transition periods where women oftentimes leave and why,” she explained.

Loiacano first became aware of the system-wide failure to collect comprehensive data about this issue when she joined a planning committee supporting the Association for Information Systems (AIS). After collecting independent data on the current number of Information Systems (IS) faculty across the United States, she found that 20.3 percent of full rank IS professors are women compared to 32.4 percent who serve as adjunct or clinical professors.

“Women were getting to the associate professor level but then they weren’t getting any further. There was this glass ceiling or a leaky pipeline where women were left behind in academia and I realized that we didn’t have a lot of data to support why this was happening,” she said.

The AIS is an international, not-for-profit professional association that was established in 1994 for individuals and organizations serving the advancement of knowledge and the promotion of excellence in the IS field. With members from over 100 countries worldwide, it supports those who lead the research, teaching, practice and study of information systems.

It began as an organization that was predominantly male-led, which was reflective of gender representation in the field at the time. But as the organization grew and more women joined and participated in the association’s annual conferences, Loiacono saw an increasing demand by its female members to have events focused on their interests.

“I started the AIS Women’s Network because we surveyed the female members of the association and discovered that the women wanted to have a place where they could go to get information and network throughout the year, not just at an annual breakfast,” she said. “Previous research shows that women go to conferences because connecting is important. Having support from a network is what really matters to them and the association could be a really big factor in helping women feel more comfortable and satisfied with their jobs.”

Researchers with the ImPACT IT project will take a three-pronged approach to advance systematic change in AIS policies and processes; create and institutionalize best practices and systems that support women in their path to full professor; and reduce hidden and implicit bias.

This project is a slight shift in focus for Loiacono who spent the last 20 years dedicating her research to user experience, specifically how people feel about the technology they use and how technologies, such as mobile apps and social media, can improve users’ experience. Prior to joining the Mason School faculty in 2020, she served as a Professor of Information Technology and Data Science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute where she concurrently served as the Co-Founder and Director of the Inclusive Design and Accessibility (IDEA) Hub.

The first step for the research team was to bring a project manager on board in January 2021 and launch a data collection group which is comprised of AIS members who serve on the Diversity & Inclusion Council. Their goal is to structure a data collection model that captures gender, education, employment, and other relevant demographic information to paint a clearer picture of the AIS membership pool. They will then take a deeper dive into the biases that impact promotion and tenure decisions, with a strong focus on the factors that drive female IS associate professors to apply, or not apply, for full professorships.

“The grant looks specifically at the process for helping women, but we feel by creating a clearer process and structure for best practices, it will help both men and women,” Loiacono said. “This is what we educate our students to do as they embark on careers in the business world – reflect on how organizations conduct their business practices – and that’s what we are looking at here."