PRISM Magazine Online - March 2000
President's Message
Closing the Gender Gap

by John Weese

This month's Prism contains an interesting article based on an ASEE survey of women in engineering education. Despite our efforts, engineering continues to lag most professions in the percentage of John Weese, Portrait by Ryan Hixenbaughwomen in its ranks, and several facts strike me as significant in this survey. First, the return rate was phenomenal—more than 30 percent. The second factor was the distribution of the respondents' ages. With almost 65 percent of the women having been employed in academia less than ten years, and just over than 5 percent having been faculty members for more than 25 years, it is clear that the composition of engineering faculties is beginning to change.

At Texas A&M, we have a very active and effective program to encourage women to enroll in engineering and engineering technology programs, with the result that our female undergraduate enrollment is now 20 percent—which is about the national average. But our vigorous effort to recruit female faculty members in the College of Engineering has yielded just 6.6 percent—not a very notable achievement, and it might at first seem to be the dominant factor contributing to the low enrollment of female students. However, that surely isn't the whole story, because the percentage of female faculty members in A&M's College of Veterinary Medicine is only 20.5 percent, despite a female student enrollment of more than 50 percent.

Perhaps engineering's traditional "macho" image is one of the causal factors in the relative lack of women in the ranks. It is time for engineering to purge itself of its perceived macho complex. That certainly applies to universities and engineering societies, especially to ASEE, but also applies to industry. None of us should assume that our institutions have completely shed the macho mentality; it requires active effort involving a willingness to listen carefully, and the intestinal fortitude to demand changes in behavior. With many industries clamoring for larger numbers of engineering graduates, I suspect the shedding of the macho mentality in engineering departments in industry, government, and academia will dramatically accelerate as all engineering institutions work to tap the "remaining" 51 percent of our population to make up the deficit in technically skilled people.

Being the father of a female engineer has certainly helped sensitize me. I don't recall my daughter, who is practicing transportation engineering with a large private firm in Washington, D.C., having had a female engineering professor at the University of Virginia. She now has ten years of professional engineering experience, and has passed both the FE and the PE exams. But despite her success, her work experiences and her active participation in engineering societies reveal differences—usually subtle—that indicate she encounters a somewhat different set of challenges than the men who graduated from the same program with her. For this reason, I was pleased when during his presidency Ernest Smerdon initiated the effort to render the ASEE Constitution and Bylaws gender neutral. It is a modest but necessary step.

Another necessary part of ASEE's mission is to promote the image of engineers, which we do in Prism by recognizing those in our profession who have risen to positions of prominence. The profiles in Prism help us understand what makes current leaders in our profession tick and gives us a better view of them as individuals. This month's article on Drexel University president Constantine Papadakis is a good example. Papadakis is a highly focused and extraordinarily effective person. He has a keen mind, a quick wit, and is one of a surprisingly large number of ASEE members who are university presidents.

There are more than 400 U.S. institutions offering programs in engineering or engineering technology, with some offering both. A recent search of the ASEE database for members who hold titles of president or chancellor yielded 55names—or about 15 percent of those 400 institutions. Presidents must take a broad view, and have an appreciation for how different components of universities interact. We have begun tapping ASEE-member presidents for insights about new initiatives, and in time, the presidents might evolve into a group with clout comparable to that of the Engineering Deans Council.

And speaking of leadership, the election ballot for new ASEE officers is packaged with this issue of Prism. I hope that you will read the candidates' statements and cast your ballot. There have been years when some election outcomes have been determined by a very small margin of votes The democratic process works best when the preponderance of informed electorate exercise their right to vote. Please do your part!

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