PRISM Magazine Online - March 2000
finding their way

Women in engineering education still face considerable obstacles in a field overwhelmingly dominated by men, according to a new ASEE survey.

By J.J. Thompson

Engineering may very well be the final professional frontier for women. After all, relatively few females have made the bold step into this mostly male domain. In fact, in the mid-1990s, according to the Women in Engineering Program Advocates Network (WEPAN), women made up only 7 percent of the engineering workforce. Proportionately, many more women are physicians, attorneys, or work in business.

Once a woman ventures into engineering, she often finds that she works in a culture that poses challenges and struggles reminiscent of those faced by the women first entering the workforce years ago. Indeed, this sad truth may be more of a reality for female engineers working in academia than for those in industry.

That's the evidence produced by a Prism survey of women in engineering departments at colleges and universities across the country. More than 300 women (for a 31 percent response rate) representing nearly every level of teaching and academic administration answered Prism's questions about their experiences, often with long, thoughtful replies to more open-ended questions.

Nearly 30 percent of the respondents say they frequently or very frequently experience discrimination as a woman in engineering academia. Balancing work and family poses difficulties for many female academics as well, with almost two thirds saying that it is either difficult or very difficult to maintain that juggling act. Thirty-six percent say that family responsibilities have negatively affected their career advancement, and well over a third say they are putting off—or have already put off—having a family to advance their career.

The numbers tell the story, of course, but it's the people behind them who bring that story home. Leah Akins, for instance, is an assistant professor in the engineering architecture and computer technologies department at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She was completing her doctoral dissertation before she met a female engineering professor who could serve as role model, advisor, and guide through the labyrinth of an engineering Ph.D. program.

Kim Needy, now up for tenure in the industrial engineering department at the University of Pittsburgh, delayed having children to get ahead in her career. Norma Hubele, a professor of industrial engineering at Arizona State University, skips a lot of the "camaraderie-type things" such as long lunches and volleyball games with the students, preferring to devote the time she has to doing her job well and tending to her family.

While the experiences of every woman pursuing an academic career in engineering are unique, the stories of Akins, Needy, and Hubele help illustrate the larger narrative about women in engineering academia. For starters, many women, as does Akins, seem almost surprised that they actually found their way into engineering, so few were the role models and the chances to learn about the career. "I was good in math but I wouldn't say I was good in science," Akins remembers of her high school days, "and I had absolutely no idea what an engineer did."

Her high school guidance counselor, however, suggested that "it was the thing to do." That kind of encouragement may be somewhat of a rarity—38 percent of survey respondents ranked the encouragement of counselors as "not at all important" in their decision to enter engineering. Akins, who got further encouragement from her parents, decided to give it a try. After earning her master's from Lehigh University, she worked in industry while pursuing a Ph.D. at a major engineering school in the northeastern United States. She also looked for a teaching job, partly at the urging of industrial colleagues who were worried about the dearth of female role models in engineering academia.

Needy, on the other hand, received a stronger introduction to engineering. Learning of the career through an Explorers Post program at her high school in the late '70s, she quickly realized she would be entering a mostly male world. "There were not a lot of women around when we went to visit industrial engineering sites," she says, but "it encouraged me actually. I looked at it like, 'Wow, this is a good opportunity because there are not a lot of women in it.'"



If you have considered leaving academia, what are the reasons?

total number responding: 191

respondents could choose more than one answer

62% of the respondents indicated that they have considered leaving academia

Why Women Drop Out

The lack of a core of women in engineering programs—18 percent of all engineering bachelor's degrees are awarded to women, according to the Department of Education, and that number drops to about 12 percent for Ph.D.'s—creates a vicious circle. The male-dominated environment, researchers believe, adds to the relatively high attrition rate of female engineering students.

As a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic University in New York in the early '80s, Norma Hubele worked as a dorm mother "and I saw that women need women to hang out with. It's just natural when you're going to college, and there weren't that many around. So you either have to have a personality that says it doesn't matter or [you] feel left out of the network."

Looking back, Akins feels she suffered from a lack of women in her engineering education when it came time to defend her Ph.D. dissertation. "I had two thirds of my dissertation done," she remembers. "I had developed a magnificent theory. I was really psyched." What's more, she was caring for her newborn baby. But her dissertation committee chair, whom she describes as a sensitive man, was afraid to let her defend because there was a professor on the committee who was ready to tear her dissertation apart.

"My advisor was the most wonderful person in world, but I think he was more scared and worried for me because I was a woman. And he may have been right," Akins says. So she quit. "That's how close I was, and I walked away." Her dissertation remained untouched for the next nine years, she says, until she ran into her former advisor at a meeting. He encouraged her to complete the process, and this is when Akins found her first female champion in engineering—a faculty member who agreed to serve as her committee chair the second time around.

The same professor who had been so against her theory nine years earlier attended the defense session of her dissertation, Akins says, "and he was particularly harsh on me. I had people come up to me and say that they hadn't ever seen such a brutal defense" of a dissertation.

Akins knew the man disagreed with her theory, and had actually chalked the experience up to that, but realizes that gender issues may have played into the emotional experience as well.

"My committee chair felt it was really gender discrimination that was where it was coming from," Akins says. "He was so vigorously opposed to my getting this degree. I did not know him well enough to think that." Akins says that experience was the only time she has brushed up against discrimination in academia, like 42 percent of respondents to the Prism survey who say they have rarely or never had to deal with gender discrimination.

Many of the respondents report that the discrimination is often so subtle that it would be impossible to prove. Frequently cited examples include dismissal of what they have to say during committee meetings and inappropriate comments from fellow faculty members. Few mentioned experiences as blatant as the woman who commented that a department chair suggested that she have her husband call him in regard to her "situation," or another who said a written review of her work included the fact that she was pregnant with her third child. "What does that have to do with anything professionally?" she asks. "I bet my male colleagues have not had those types of facts included in their reviews."

Pay, however, is one area where the majority of respondents felt fairly treated, with 66 percent reporting they are fairly compensated in comparison with male colleagues. A 1995 NSF survey backs that up, showing that when years of service are factored in, female engineers earn 97 cents to every male engineer's dollar.



Are you delaying (or have you delayed) having a family to advance your career?

female deans on the rise

Higher turnover among administrators and a sixfold increase in the number of women receiving Ph.D.'s over the last 20 years are bringing more women into leadership positions in engineering academia. There are now 11 female engineering deans at ASEE-member schools, up from 7 in 1996.

  • Sabra Anderson, University of Minnesota-Duluth
  • Eleanor Baum, The Cooper Union
  • Ilene Busch-Vischniac, Johns Hopkins University
  • Pamela Eibeck, Northern Arizona University
  • Denice Denton, University of Washington
  • Janie Fouke, Michigan State University
  • Heskia Heskiaoff, New York Institute of Technology
  • Helen Hollein, Manhattan College
  • Nancy Jannik, Winona State University
  • Kristina Johnson, Duke University
  • Jane C. S. Long, University of Nevada-Reno, Mackay School of Mines

Committee Overload

An area in which many respondents feel they are treated differently because of their gender is in the amount of service work they are required to perform, especially when compared to that of their male co-workers. "For any committee they put together," Needy says, "they want a woman. I've served on quite a few committees, and I think it's good because women and men do think differently and do tend to have different strengths." The trouble, she says, is that because women are still a minority in most engineering schools and departments, they end up getting appointed to a disproportionate number of committees. In addition, maybe because they are seen as more nurturing or maybe to provide more female role models, respondents to the survey said they serve as advisors to students a larger proportion of time.

The problem, many say, is that when you go through the tenure and promotion process, committee service and advising don't seem to carry all that much weight. At research-focused schools like the University of Pittsburgh, where Needy teaches, the administration demands that faculty members succeed in research above all else, she says. "Number two is teaching and [number] three is service. It's not that those activities are not important; they are," she says. "But in the end, it's your dean and your department chair who make appointments to committees, so they know the value that you are adding."

Not so with tenure and promotion committees, she says. Needy and others argue that engineering schools need to recognize the value and need for women in service capacities and to give equitable credit for the contributions those activities make to the institutions.

Hubele, on the other hand, feels she has been duly recognized for her contributions on various committees at Arizona State. In fact, in her promotion from associate to full professor in the spring of 1998, "I think a critical element was my participation in committees," she says.



How often have you experiences discrimination as a female professor?



How difficult is it to balance work and family?

Family Matters

After joining the faculty at ASU in 1984, Hubele realized that with an 18-month-old child at home and the tenure clock ticking, she couldn't get everything done. Afraid she would lose out on her daughter's childhood, she made the difficult decision to reduce her full-time load. She sought advice from a female faculty member in the mathematics department and then "went in with a formula about how I would do it, what my load would look like and how I would function within the department."

Because going half-time at ASU in practice translates into taking a part-time leave of absence, which normally precludes any committee work, she says, "I asked to take a half load and not be exempt from committees. I continued to chair graduate committees and participate in faculty government," Hubele says. "I didn't create this image of me as a second class citizen."

Proof of her success came in 1994, when she was asked to serve as interim chair of her department. "I think that's a reflection that you don't have to compromise your professional image by being part-time," she says. Hubele feels like she's been able to have it all. "I got a satisfying career and a happy family. I got to enjoy the infant and the child years. I got the intellectual challenges of a career. It just kind of kept me a whole person."

Hubele credits her family and her school's administration with helping her find and maintain such a happy balance. According to the responses to the survey, however, not every woman has had such an easy time. Kim Needy is one of those. "At least for me and other people I observe, you don't fully appreciate how much your life will change once you have a child," says Needy, whose son, James, is now two years old. "It was harder than I imagined," she says. "For me, it just shortened the amount of time I had to do my work. In the past, I could always just stay late or come in on Saturday for a few hours."

Now Needy has to leave campus by 4:15 p.m. to pick up her son from daycare, and she seldom is willing to give up precious family time on the weekends. She's given up on the notion that she would do an hour or two of work after James is in bed, she says, because by that time she's too exhausted.



How important was the encouragement of high school/college counselors in your decision to enter engineering?



What are your primary concerns in trying to balance work and family?

Spousal Support

Akins, meanwhile, enjoys her rare situation, in which her husband is working part-time so that she can concentrate on her career. "When we first decided to have children, we actually talked about it," Akins says. "We said it would be fabulous if we could find a way to split the responsibility, because we both felt that someone really needed to be home for the children."

For the first years, she taught and played the role of primary caregiver for their two children while her husband held a demanding job as a civil engineer. Then a few years ago, Akins, who was teaching as an adjunct, found out that a full-time position was about to open up at Dutchess Community College. "We thought that this could be our time to do it," Akins says. "He was working for a very male-oriented civil engineering firm," she says of her husband. Because he had already started interviewing for other jobs, she suggested, "Why don't you throw it out to see if any of these companies will hire you part-time?"

He landed a job with a civil engineering consulting firm that is run by a woman and, in addition, boasts a team that is about two-thirds female. During the interview, Akins says, her husband mentioned that he would need to be off in the summers and work part-time during the school year. The head of the firm told him, "Wow, that's great, and I want to marry you." The interview went on for more than two hours, with much of the conversation centered on how to balance work and family.

Akins' husband now works 20 to 25 hours per week, shuttles the children to and from school, manages most of the family and household responsibilities, and takes five weeks off in the summer so they can do things as a family. "There's no way I can imagine a male manager being so willing to work with an employee," says Akins.

Hubele says she had received similar accommodations from her administration at ASU, and adds that it should be duplicated elsewhere. After all, she says of female engineers, "we're high achievers. You get a lot more work out of people who are happy. You may have to give a few hours on paper, but you're sure to get them back." With so many options outside of academia for female educators, it's a tradeoff more and more administrators will likely be making.

    J.J. Thompson is a freelance writer in Little Rock, Arkansas.

    To purchase copies of the complete survey results or reprints of this article,
     contact Becky Ross at .

another survey coming soon

A more comprehensive survey of women and minority engineers is in the planning stages under the auspices of ASEE's Engineering Deans Council, chaired by Steve Director, with the collaboration of the National Academy of Engineering and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Paul Gray, dean of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of the Academy, says that the survey is targeted for the second half of 2000. "Surveying is a science," he says. "We're still thinking about how to best gather this information."