PRISM Magazine Online - May-June 2000

Women in Engineering

    I enjoyed the article "Finding Their Way" (March 2000) and wanted to add a few comments from my own very positive experiences in engineering.

    First, to attract more women (and men) into engineering, we must show them how engineers help people, how engineers make dramatic medical advancements, clean up the environment, develop new ways to keep us safe, and help with lifestyle innovations. Women and girls are particularly motivated by "making the world a better place," but it doesn't stop there. Men, too, respond with enthusiasm to projects where they can readily see the positive outcome on society. As university professors, we have the opportunity to express our own excitement about engineering, and our awe and amazement at engineering feats that have changed the world.

    Second, we must actively encourage women (and men) engineering students to stay in the program. A kind word, a smile, honestly seeking questions and dialogue in our classes--these help a lot. Virtually all engineering students will wonder at times if they are "smart enough" to make it through. Women, in particular, are likely to be very critical of their own abilities. Women drop out of engineering with an average grade point a full grade higher than the average men who drop out. It isn't that they can't make it through, it's that they think they can't. When I walked into my first engineering class, "Introduction to Electric Circuits," as a student at the University of Utah, I found a room full of about 100 men, and I was the only woman. I was scared, ready to turn and walk out, but the professor, Dr. Carl Durney, waved me to come sit down front. He often asked how I was enjoying the class and what questions I had from the day before. I made a point to get to class early, just so I could talk with him. Women, and men too, who stay in engineering commonly have someone who has encouraged them when times were tough.

    Third, we must get and keep women (and men) faculty members. I don't know the answers to retention, but as a three-year faculty member at Utah State University, I do know what I need--a reasonable workload, encouragement, and opportunities. The opportunities are provided by any good university. Honest encouragement from faculty colleagues and a good department chair makes my day. The only remaining difficulty is the sheer amount of work that needs to be done to be a quality teacher, establish a vibrant new research program, and serve the university and my community. At the end of the day I crave to spend time with my family without feeling guilty that I should be writing one more grant proposal, one more paper, spending just a little more time in the lab, doing a better job with tomorrow's lecture. Fortunately, I have a good department chair who has helped me pare out a reasonable set of expectations that can be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. Therefore, I hope to be "a keeper."

    I hope that other department chairs will take seriously the damage that drastic overwork can do to young faculty members, both men and women, and how it is likely to make them leave for the higher pay (and often easier work) in industry. Flexibility is also a major issue, particularly for families with young children. The university system, by its very nature, can provide almost complete flexibility of working hours. I was particularly fascinated by the half-timers mentioned in the Prism article, and I'd like to know more!

    Cynthia Furse
    Utah State University

    PRISM March 2000As a woman engineering educator, I must say that I have experienced two worlds: an outstanding one and one less than desirable. In my present position at Oregon State University, I am extended all the same professional courtesies as are my male counterparts. However, while in a tenure-track position at a large university on the east coast, which I left approximately one and a half years ago to join the faculty at OSU, this was sadly not the case.

    During the two and a half years I was at the east coast school, the resources provided to me, particularly laboratory space and matching dollars specified on NSF grant proposals, were far inferior to those of my male counterparts. A securable laboratory was promised to me during my interview, and it was to be constructed and ready for my sole occupancy within six months after my arrival. Unfortunately, it was still not complete upon my departure. While waiting for the construction of my laboratory to begin, I was finally allowed to occupy, approximately one year after my arrival, limited floor space which was in an unsecured and essentially dormant laboratory. By any standards, the laboratory was considered highly inadequate for performing quality research. I was also assigned excessive service activities, including high school recruiting, that absorbed a great deal of my time and was essentially worth nothing toward my tenure.

    It is difficult to assess why a university would deny its faculty the necessary resources to perform the tasks expected of them for tenure. Women spend just as much time and effort in earning their Ph.D. degrees as their male counterparts, so why would any university believe that women would want to achieve lesser goals in research than men? Besides, shouldn't that choice be made at the discretion of the faculty member, and not dictated to them, either directly or indirectly, by some administrator? Unfortunately they chose to deny me the resources necessary for me to initiate a research program, and as a result my career has been negatively impacted. For instance, my research credibility was questioned by a reviewer of an NSF grant proposal that I recently submitted. Perhaps not aware that I was denied resources at my previous school, the reviewer viewed the lack of publications independent of my advisor to be a reflection of my inability to work independently of my advisor.

    It took losing 50 percent of the women faculty members from the College of Engineering (a total of two), complaints of hostile conditions from the remaining women faculty (another two), and approximately one and a half years for the university to determine that such a hostile climate existed. Recently, as noted on the front page of the local newspaper where this school is located, the university's president openly "acknowledged that there is a climate hostile to women in the College of Engineering." The president is allegedly going to write letters of apology to three of the four former and current female faculty members, as is the dean. However, the dean of the College of Engineering has insisted that the contents of his letter remain confidential.

    The letters, unfortunately, are of little consolation and a little too late in coming. Perhaps if the issues raised by the first female faculty member to depart from the college more than a year prior to my arrival had been adequately investigated and the circumstances surrounding her departure been improved, the injustices suffered by the remaining women faculty and by me might well have been avoided.

    It is my hope, that in the near future, all faculty members can work in a gender equitable environment, such as the one I have experienced here at Oregon State University, where two department chairs as well as an interim department chair are women. This is only possible, however, if the administration takes a pro-active stance on the issue. Two of several major steps necessary toward achieving this goal are that administrators must earnestly listen to the concerns of their female faculty, and recognize that men and women do not necessarily react to the same situation in an identical manner.

    Deborah V. Pence
    Oregon State University

    I think one of the most critical issues women engineering faculty face is the children/family one. My children are older now (17, 15, and 12) but when they were small and I was working on my Ph.D., it was an extremely difficult time in my life. The problem is that we, as women, must do all of the things expected of us to obtain tenure/promotion. However, it is not really an even playing field. The male faculty that I am surrounded by typically have a wife who is a stay-at-home mom or a wife who is working part time. They are able to stay at work when school gets canceled due to the weather or when they have a sick child at home or a child needs a ride to soccer practice. As a single parent, my children have no one except me to depend on when they need someone. My male colleagues simply do not understand this basic fact of my life.

    I recently talked to someone "in the loop" about the possibility of going up for promotion to full professor. When asked why I wanted to go up at this time (he thought it was "early"), I responded that I just wanted to get this one extra thing off of my shoulders so that I wouldn't feel so stressed out. His comment was that I shouldn't feel stressed about this promotion. He didn't even look at my accomplishments, but advised me to wait until I had been an associate professor a little longer and that I would make full professor at a later date with no problem. It was obvious to me that he was looking at things through his filter. He was a faculty member with a supportive spouse at home while he was making his way through the process and didn't realize what my every day life was like.

    I think that it is important for women to not whine too much and to try to "play by the rules", otherwise we will lose all of our credibility and accomplish nothing. Tenuring and/or promoting women who aren't qualified only hurts the cause. Once women can move into positions of power within the organization, then we can achieve change from within. I also think that sometimes we are our own worst enemy. I have seen women faculty be highly critical of other women faculty when, in fact, they should be promoting them.

    I feel that in my twenty-some years of association with the engineering profession I have experienced a great deal of discrimination. Some of it has been very subtle and hard to put a finger on, but some of it has been very overt (like when I was told by the department chair that I wasn't dedicated enough and I would obviously never be able to finish my Ph.D. because I got pregnant).

    The "good old boy" network is alive and well in the world of engineering. Unfortunately, the only way that we can effect real change is through evolution and not revolution. The younger department chairs in our college are an order of magnitude more sensitive to most of these issues than are the chairs who have been at the university for many years. Many upper level administrators are long on rhetoric and short on action. When women and truly supportive men start assuming roles in these upper levels of administration, then we will see real progress. Until then, our only viable option is to keep on working harder and smarter than our male colleagues.

    Sheryl Sorby
    Michigan Technological University

    On reading "Finding Their Way" I was reminded of my experiences with discrimination and the difficulties of juggling teaching, completing graduate studies in environmental engineering (M.S. 1986 and Ph.D.1998), raising two children and staying married to the same man for 36 years. When I emerged with a B.S. in chemistry in 1965, I was blatantly told by several potential employers that, as a female, I would not be happy working at their facility. Later I had a department chairman (now long retired) who refused to give a number of capable women full-time appointments. We were all married to successful men; he said we didn't need the money. During my M.S. program, my two children were at home. Covering all bases, including parenting, work and housework, with an equally pressured spouse, produced such intense stress that I delayed getting a Ph.D. until my children were grown.

    Your article illustrates that even though opportunities for women have improved, discrimination is still a problem and juggling family with an engineering academic career is no easier. While women's capabilities and the availability of engineering careers are not issues, increasing the representation of women in engineering has been surprisingly resistant to change. In a National Science Foundation-funded program at MSOE to improve retention of women engineering students, we learned that many women students need to be in contact with practicing women engineers to be able to visualize themselves as successful engineers. Yet, there are few women in academia who have found "women in engineering" activities to be the route to career advancement.

    I've heard men in academia say that "over the past 15 years a lot of money has been thrown at women in engineering" and "maybe engineering is just not destined to be gender-neutral". To what extent are these commonly shared perceptions? I don't know, but if we are serious about achieving a critical mass (the percentage that eliminates the need for affirmative action programs and activities) of women at all levels of engineering, we need to find out.

    Carol Diggelman
    Milwaukee School of Engineering

Education in Deutschland

    Your report on "Re-engineering in Germany" (March 2000) touches upon the problems of the German engineering education system and the traditional view of German engineering quality. Both are myths that have been dented in recent times.

    German engineering quality has been receiving some hefty setbacks, which are clearly demonstrated by two examples. First there was the derailment of the ICE fast train in Eschede, with over 100 fatalities, as a direct result of poor technical quality control and inspection standards of rolling stock. A second example was the dynamic instability of the Mercedes A-class car--which rolled over in the Swedish "elk test"--resulting in the temporary withdrawal of the A-class from the market.

    As to German engineering education, it has always had the drawbacks pointed out in the article. Belief in the quality of the system was a consequence of the belief in German engineering quality. The realization that bachelor's and master's degrees have an international acceptance and that English is the international engineering and communication language is a manifestation of accepting defeat in the international engineering education market.

    One of the major problems faced by the German education institutions is instituting change within the German system, which is seriously inflexible due to constraints imposed by state requirements for approval of engineering programs. Curricula reforms involve cumbersome approval mechanisms. Changes also require approval of countless committees and are usually diluted by the time it comes to implementation. With respect to student numbers, the report, I believe, fails to convey the proper background information for the decline of engineering student numbers. The decline in engineering student numbers in the early nineties is probably due to two main factors. First, the job situation for graduate engineers was poor, second, there was a marked anti- technology campaign, originating in schools, as a result of the 1968 student protest movement. The following generation of teachers were opponents of technology. Moreover, German engineering enrollments are traditionally in step with market demand. This results in an oversupply when the market slackens and an undersupply when the market picks up again. The market, at present, is hungry for new engineers. This is reflected by the current enrollment increase. As a matter of fact, the need for information technology graduates has become desperate. The German government has just instituted a 'Green Card' procedure (recalling the U.S. Green Card), to entice information technologists from India and other countries to come to work in Germany. This action, as no other, reflects the dire straits into which the German engineering education and manpower situation has moved. It is to be hoped, that the course corrections which are now underway will cure the malaise in time.

    Michael Wald
    The International Journal of Engineering Education

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