Last winter the academic world captured the country’s attention. No, it wasn’t for some outstanding technological advancement. Nor was it for an amazing discovery. Rather, the media tuned into Harvard University President Lawrence Summers’ comments about biological reasoning being behind the gender difference in scientific accomplishments. Specifically, Summers posed the theory that innate differences between men and women might help explain why fewer women succeed in math and science. To make matters worse, he issued the comment while speaking at a conference about women in science.
The reaction among many attendees was shock to say the least. “It’s not appropriate for the man who holds in his hands the future of the brightest minds in America to say that 50% of them don’t have the right aptitude for science,” Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was reported saying after she walked out of the conference.
Although the incident appeared scandalous, the subsequent fallout might actually be considered a positive. Why? Well, because it stirred up the debate about equality between men and women in science and technology. Sure, it’s been a topic of discussion for generations, but many within academia agree it needs frequent revisiting since many questions remain unanswered.
Have women made enough inroads? What kind of environment does academia offer women engineering and science professors? What are schools doing to attract some of the newest and brightest educators, regardless of gender or ethnicity? And how does a lack of diversity among faculty affect students and future technological leaders?
These are all questions academic leaders are asking in the wake of the Summers episode. In this article Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers takes a look at the complicated situation.
Where It All Began
It wasn’t that long ago when female students in engineering, computer science, math or science classes were truly an oddity. Perhaps there was a handful here and there, but it was obvious that white males dominated these disciplines. For example, only one out of every four engineering and science (E&S) bachelor’s of science (BS) degrees in 1967 was awarded to women, according to the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST).
As time passed, the demographics changed somewhat. Little by little women assumed more of a visible presence. CPST states that by 2001 women accounted for approximately half (50.6%) of all of the engineering and science BS degrees granted. Of course, this is good news, but those figures don’t carry over when examining faculty makeup. This group seems to lag behind the industry in terms of diversifying.
In 1981, research showed that only nine percent of tenured professors were females, but by 2003, the number rose to 23%. Additionally, the latter study revealed that women held 36% of associate professor, 46% assistant professor and 52% “other faculty” jobs in the country, according to CPST. However, when the numbers are broken down into specific disciplines, they’re not quite as encouraging. A 2005 study by the National Science Foundation (NSF) noted that less than 2% of full professors in engineering are women. Additionally, only 13.7% of assistant professorships are held by women and 6.3% of associate professors are female.
“In other sciences, women have shot up, but in engineering things move more slowly,” notes Londa Schiebinger, professor of history of science and the Barbara Finberg director of the Institute on Women and Gender at Stanford University.
As the statistics reveal, gender equality in terms of degrees issued has made great strides over the years, but when it comes to professional success in academia, the discrepancy between the sexes remains a hot topic.
The lack of diversity within engineering and science really came under the spotlight during the late 1960s and early 1970s, in sync with the Women’s Movement. Of primary concern was accessibility. Did women have the same opportunities to pursue engineering and science degrees and careers as men? Almost overwhelmingly the answer was “no”. And for the small minority who did make it, their salaries dwarfed in comparison.
“We mainly looked at women’s salaries and tried to equalize those,” notes Schiebinger.
But as more women opted for careers in technology, money became less of an issue. Although, according to the NSF, there is still an imbalance on the books when it comes to equal pay: The median salary for females and underrepresented minorities with computer/information science BS degrees in 2001 was $45,000 compared with $52,000 for men. In engineering, men earned $49,000 and women brought in $46,000. The improving news, however, is that NSF statistics show underrepresented minority engineers garnered a median income of $50,000. But for doctorate degree holders, statistics weren’t even broken down among gender or ethnicities.
In today’s environment, finances are only one element to the equality equation. There is more affecting the success of women engineers and scientists, particularly as it pertains to female faculty.
“By the 1990s, we realized we [needed] to change the culture of universities and engineering departments,” says Schiebinger. “It wasn’t fair to ask women to come into an institution that was formed along the patterns of men’s lives. It’s like fitting square pegs into round holes, because these situations have been organized for men.”
In other words, retention of female faculty has been problematic. The structure of the traditional tenure track did not take into account some of the outside influences impacting professional women, such as family life. A University of Michigan study revealed that married women are 20% less likely than single professors to enter a tenure position. Additionally, women with children are 29% less likely to seek out tenure. “Let’s face it, women play a larger role in reproduction,” comments Schiebinger.
“There are a lot of demands placed on women,” adds Tammy Salmon-Stephens, senior director of the Women in Engineering Program and engineering advising office at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville (UWP). “If you go into academia, then you have to compromise with your partner or spouse in order to get a win-win situation for your career and your personal life,” she suggests from experience. “I recently finished my master’s degree, have a three-year-old daughter, and have been married for four years. Even though my husband and I have had these conversations about how to balance it all, it requires work.”
Work/life balance is something corporations have embraced for years. Many businesses have developed outstanding initiatives to assist their employees, and help them attend to both professional and personal demands. The results have been more satisfied employees who aren’t stressed at work because of family pressures (or vice versa) and increased production because workers are more focused when on the job.
With such success stories in the private sector, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that universities and colleges have begun to examine the subject of work/life balance as well. For example, the current attitude is to realign the tenure path so it encourages women to stay in academia. “Stanford University, for example, has programs to extend the tenure clock so women can have families and get tenure,” says Schiebinger. “Also, there are programs to mentor junior faculty and assist them with career development.”
Getting the Word Out
An even bigger problem facing engineering and science programs is diversifying and growing the talent pool for future recruitment. In fact, this is a concern for engineering and science in general, especially with the projected labor shortage approaching.
“There is a prediction of talent shortages,” asserts Salmon-Stephens. “The baby boomers are retiring and, even though there are more women going to college, the fact that engineering is a traditionally a male-dominated field for this generation has only exacerbated the problem.”
One of the root concerns is the lack of women choosing to obtain advanced degrees. “Women at the graduate level is crucial to increasing women in faculty,” comments Schiebinger.
According to the NSF Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering 2004 report, females constitute 41% of all science and engineering graduate students. The CPST 2002 data, however, show that only approximately 30% of female graduate students decide to earn a PhD degree.
There’s plenty of speculation about why women fall out of the educational pipeline. Perhaps they’re tired of being students and are anxious to start the next phase of their lives. Maybe they’ve accrued substantial student loans and feel compelled to earn a salary and pay off some of that debt. Or, they are unaware of the possibilities an advanced degree could bring.
“If someone had told me that I had what it takes to become a professor, and it would just mean a little more work and time in school, then I’d have made that my job of choice,” states Salmon-Stephens. Instead, she obtained a job in industry after graduating and before joining UWP, at which time she began her master’s program online. “I love working in academia. It’s the place for me, but I knew you had to have an advanced degree.”
She’s not alone. Many female faculty believe that if the idea of an academic career was sufficiently promoted then more women and minorities would opt for it, or at least consider graduate school. Sometimes it simply comes down to having a visible success story. “Female faculty are role models and mentors for female students,” asserts Schiebinger.
“They can sit down with a mentor who can plant a seed to have them consider grad school,” adds Salmon-Stephens. “When I talk with faculty about how to improve [the presence] of women in the department, I say to grow them from within. As you seestudents blossom, then encourage them into graduate school.”
Making It Work
Choosing to attend graduate school is much like pursuing that first professional position in industry. Experts say students should explore the possibility as seriously as if it were a job search. That means researching options, gaining first-hand experience and, of course, networking with individuals in positions to help make a difference. Beyond evaluating various programs—including location, tuition, faculty support and guidance—students should seek out research opportunities while still undergraduates. Professors are usually involved with research projects in addition to teaching classes and they often need assistance. It’s through these opportunities that students can gain insight into the profession. Additionally, it’s a chance to explore various concentrations.
Salmon-Stephens notes, “Some of our students who have done summer research internships say it’s the most wonderful thing they’ve ever done. It gives them a picture of an academic life and whether or not it’s for them.”
Perhaps even more important is the fact that internships connect students with professionals who can introduce them to important colleagues. In other words, it’s a time to network.
“Academia is like everything else, you work through networks. You have to get to the people who can give you advice,” suggests Schiebinger. “They can help make sure you’re getting the undergraduate classes you’ll need for a teaching career.”
Networking, however, doesn’t have to be restricted to established faculty. Instead, meeting with peers can prove to be fruitful as well, which is why many universities and colleges have created formal—as well as endorsed informal—mentoring programs between students. At UWP, for example, the WEP’s mentoring program matches juniors and seniors with sophomores and freshmen. This not only introduces female students to other female students, but it facilitates an exchange of ideas, advice and experiences.
“Some pairings have special activities, like going to the career planning office to learn about resume writing,” says Salmon-Stephens. “Or sometimes they’ll do fun things like tour local businesses. That is the difference between when I was an undergraduate and now; women students know each other.”
And as students get more involved in their disciplines, networking groups promote cross-function interactions. There are opportunities for women to discuss technology as well as off-topic subjects, such as balancing professional and personal lives or career options.
“People like organizations such as Stanford’s Institute on Women and Gender because there are a lot of opportunities for informal networking. Last year, we had some graduate students come to us looking for help to organize informal groups,” says Schiebinger. “So we created an umbrella organization for all women in science and engineering. They were able to network with a larger group and connect with faculty through events.”
Make a Difference
Creating diversity within engineering and science is more than merely an altruistic endeavor. There are numerous tangible benefits to having a workforce—or faculty, as the case may be—that reflects the diverse American population. For example, customers don’t fit into a one-size-fits-all category, and neither should the teachers instructing future engineers and scientists. Schiebinger points to the fact that design issues vary between the sexes. “We’re beginning to look at different populations and their needs when it comes to product design. Gender analysis needs to be taken into account,” she explains. “This opens up a new set of questions, which is exciting because it will bring more women and minorities into engineering and science.
“When the Air Force wanted more females,” Schiebinger continues, “it had to redesign the cockpits. They had to fit a wider range of people. That redesign allowed more women to be pilots as well as shorter men.”
Although women may not have reached the same levels as men in all aspects of engineering and science, time has proven that they certainly don’t lack in capability or motivation—despite any inquisitorial pondering by Summers. As long as women are presented with enough information about their options and what it takes for success, including mentors and role models, then they shine.
So when it comes to females embracing a professional life in academia, perhaps it’s only a matter of time and effort on the part of universities administrators to make it an attractive and satisfying career option for students. And, as Salmon-Stephens notes, “Remember, you can do a graduate degree any time in your career. Just don’t forget it’s an option.”