Keeping Female Faculty in the Sciences and Engineering

In 2005, Harvard President Larry Summers speculated that innate gender differences may explain why fewer women than men reach top university science and engineering positions. Summers’s remarks caused a firestorm of criticism that eventually cost him his job.

I co-authored a study of women in academe that was released by the National Academy Press, titled Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. Summers’s firestorm challenged us to scientifically address the question: Is there a biological basis for the low number of women in science and engineering and its professoriate?

The findings detailed in this report revealed that structural and implicit gender bias – not biological differences between the sexes – is the root cause of the gender gap in science and engineering. The talent is there and in increasing numbers in many fields, but at each critical transition in the post-doctoral pipeline, women drop out or are less likely to be considered or promoted in academic positions.

The report did show that biology makes a huge difference – not in innate abilities, but rather in disadvantaging women in de facto discriminatory structures that were designed for men’s biology. During a woman’s prime child-bearing years, potential faculty members complete a Ph.D. and spend six or more years in the tenure clock. Gaps due to childbirth could make or break a woman’s academic career during this period, forcing women in their late 20s and early 30s into making painful choices between tenure-track and a family. Not only is this a choice male peers aren’t required to make, men’s academic success actually increases with marriage and family. Women in other high-stress, high-performance jobs, such as medicine and law, are much more likely to have children than are women faculty. Unlike other professions, academe suffers from inadequate childcare, a rigid tenure clock, gendered metrics of success and a chilly climate among colleagues and administrators.

In addition to structural barriers, the report highlighted areas of implicit discrimination by both men and women. These findings resonated with the shockingly intense dissatisfaction I heard from women faculty who participated in a focus group I co-organized as part of the NAE Engineer 2020 project. Several had recently left academe due to what they perceived as a climate that was unfriendly to women. They felt that efforts at increasing faculty diversity were half-hearted, ineffectual, and not well-informed. They challenged the very direction of the engineering education enterprise, questioning the status quo of who we educate, the content of our curricula, and the funding priorities for our research.

I found myself in agreement with the sentiment of the women’s focus group. I am convinced that the way we identify, frame, and solve problems is a highly gendered process. The air bag debacle is a prime example. The automotive industry had designed air bags to increase the safety for people who conformed to the standard test dummy, modeled after the average 5’10” 170-pound American male. Alas, they decreased safety for a good percentage of women and most children. Lives were lost until the automotive industry went back to the drawing board and revised their test programs. They also scaled up efforts to increase the number of women on their design and engineering teams.

With increased challenges in sustainability, security, health, urbanization, natural disasters, population growth, and globalization, the engineering enterprise cannot afford to waste the education and problem-solving potential of half of its population. This report should put to rest any question as to whether women have the capacity to contribute to engineering and its professoriate. It provides strategies for action that can turn things around for academics who have the will and commitment to implement them.

Alice Merner Agogino, pictured above (right) with her family, is the Roscoe and Elizabeth Hughes Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. A version of this piece originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of ASEE’s Prism magazine.

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