PRISM Magazine - January 2003
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FROM OUR READERS

WHAT KNOT TO WEAR

I find it ironic that in your recent issue dedicated to discussing "who's missing" in engineering education, you also include a column by Henry Petroski called "Losing the Tie." As Petroski himself notes in passing, changes in standards of professional dress have at times come about with changes in the demographics of those professionals. Though Petroski may not have done so intentionally, his discussion of the self-consciousness that accompanies changing practices highlights an important point often missing from discussions of diversity—changing the demographics of engineering education will require changes (large and small) on the part of current as well as new members. With patience and open-mindedness though, temporary self-consciousness can give way to long-term improvements for all.

Sarah Pfatteicher
Assistant Dean for Engineering
Academic Affairs
University of Wisconsin-Madison

 

DEATH BY A THOUSAND CUTS

As an African-American woman who has successfully gone through the academic job search, I can say that the solutions posed in the article "Who's Not in the Faculty Club?" are not so simple. Tasks such as polishing a university's image or giving a person a parking spot does not negate centuries of bias. If we want to change the way things are done, we need to alter some fundamental behavior.

Particularly, we need to teach professors - a university's primary representatives - what is appropriate conduct during the interviewing process (and thereafter). The little things they say or do can spoil the experience for candidates that are women or of color and sway them away. These small actions are what I call death by a thousand cuts. For example, it is not appropriate to mention a PBS special on slavery or that you like soul food. In addition, although the act of providing a parking space is well intentioned, it may cause a rift between colleagues by highlighting a difference or preference. And, since nobody wants to stand out on this issue, we need to operate sensitively.

Unfortunately, we are trying to right a wrong by hiding behind the numbers and a need to tap "this human resource as a capital advantage." Candidates don't want to be a number; they want to be valued. Plus, this language seems misplaced from an interviewees' point of view. We need to change our recruiting vantage. Sports scouts tell potential rookies how a team will advance their career, how they will have access to top facilities to maximize talent, and how they will be part of a team of champions. This is the perspective and language academic recruiters should adopt with a candidate, with no mention of statistics.

It is important to remember the real reason for diversity. It is imperative because different perspectives can innovate better than one. Creating diversity can be compared to music: You can play the notes with one instrument or an orchestra. Both generate sounds; however, orchestras create fuller and richer tones. The continual inclusion of women and people of color in engineering, I can confidently say, will have a similar effect. It is my hope that we learn to play together harmoniously, motivated by a common unifying muse—that is, the concert of invention.

Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph.D.
Scienceworks

 
 
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