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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo NOVEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 3
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PLANTING THE SEED - Women find themselves going around a lot of blind corners when it comes to tenure. Family responsibilities are often held against them. - By Mary Lord - Illustration by Michael Lotenero

By Mary Lord

Women in engineering are less likely than men to get tenure, and having children makes it even more difficult, according to a recent National Science Foundation (NSF) study. “Our results say that if you’re a male and you’re married and have children, it doesn’t hurt your career. If you’re a woman, it does,” says Jerome T. Bentley, lead author of the report and chair of the economics department at Rider University in New Jersey.

The report shows that for those with 14 to 15 years of postdoctoral experience, women in science and engineering are almost 14 percent less likely than men to become a full professor. Not only does being married hurt a woman’s chances of getting tenure, women with children over the age of 6 are at a greater disadvantage. Upward mobility is particularly difficult for women at prestigious research institutions. At four-year colleges and universities, only 15 percent of female science and engineering educators are full professors, compared with 44 percent of men. At Harvard, for example, the number of women obtaining tenure in all fields declined three years in a row after Lawrence Summers assumed the presidency. Only after enraging women with remarks about female scientists and engineers did Summers pledge $50 million to support the kinds of programs that he once suggested would have little impact.

There are many subtle ways that women are discriminated against in their struggle for tenure. One female faculty member was stunned when male colleagues arranged to have pre-dinner drinks with an NSF grantor and didn’t think to include her. Another walked in on a male peer reeling off her research findings at a professional meeting with no hint of attribution. Then there was the search committee member who asked a young chemical engineer if she understood that tenure hinged on scholarship. “I was wondering if he’d seen my résumé because I was on my fourth research lab,” recalls Sheryl Ehrman, who headed instead for the University of Maryland, where she recently received tenure.

It’s not as if women lack the credentials. They earned 17.4 percent of the engineering doctoral degrees in 2003 and accounted for nearly a third of the Ph.D.s awarded in such disciplines as biomedical and environmental engineering. But even traditionally male-dominated disciplines like business and medicine boast better track records. One reason other professional schools do better, says Mara H. Wasburn, assistant professor of organizational leadership at Purdue University’s College of Technology, is that “they’ve got some parity there. The students look around and say ‘Wow, there are people like me here.’”

A number of factors underlie this persistent gender gap, say scholars who have examined the phenomenon. Some are cultural. Comfort levels play a role as well; studies show that people mentor and promote those who are most like themselves, which in engineering means white males. Some campuses are making inroads. But fundamentally, the problem boils down to low numbers, inadequate mentoring and support systems and the cumulative drag of dealing with lots of small but emotionally draining issues.

Trapped into Service

Left: Sheryl Ehrman - Right: Lori Mann Bruce - Photographs by Fernando SandovalWomen often overload on outreach and other service activities, and that can be a “trap,” says Lori Mann Bruce, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Mississippi State University. “There usually are very good intentions by colleges and department heads to have women representatives on committees and doing outreach, but when you’re the only one in the department, you end up doing much more.” She should know. As a young tenure-track professor, she says she felt as if she “couldn’t say no” and wound up spending every Saturday on some activity—putting in 10 times the hours her male colleagues did. “I wanted to be a team player,” recalls Bruce, who served on every search committee and still does. But good-citizen activities consume time and energy that might be better spent in the lab. They can be very political. And while the provost knows her name, “I think what my résumé could have looked like if I hadn’t done all that service,” Bruce says. “When it comes down to it, a promotion and tenure committee is going to count your great articles and your great research.”

Even then, women can’t count on a level playing field. “The big issue right now is the accumulation of disadvantages,” says Associate Professor Noel N. Schulz from Mississippi State’s James Worth Bagley College of Engineering. Rather than outright harassment, she says, women face tiny biases that can add up to major obstacles. They feel excluded, isolated or silenced. Schulz gives the example of a department head who calls a 7 p.m. meeting not realizing some female colleagues, as well as some males, have evening commitments. “It’s not intentional, but those things add up,” she says.

“The ability to step in and out of a career in science and engineering is not the same as in other disciplines,” says Purdue’s Wasburn. “You can’t be at the lab and at home. You’ve got to put in face time. When you throw babies into the mix, you’ve lost a lot of ground.” Some universities will stop the tenure clock for a year, but caring for a newborn doesn’t fill the gap in the résumé. That’s why Mississippi State’s Bruce “did not even try to have a family” until she was almost a full professor. Bruce, now 37, had her first child in August.

Creating a Comfort Zone

Many women struggle to find camaraderie as they ascend the academic ladder. “You want to find a home in the university, in your department,” says Tonya L. Emerson, who, as the only female tenure-track professor in California State University, Chico’s civil engineering department, felt she had to be outstanding, not just good at the job. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that one of the most potent ways to recruit and retain faculty members is to make them feel part of the department and university team. And as some forward-thinking deans have discovered, that can involve something as simple as tweaking the mentoring program or sponsoring brown-bag seminars for new professors. “Engineering is about community, about working with a team,” notes Emerson, who with backing from the American Society of Civil Engineering has begun holding teacher-training seminars for new faculty members to improve student retention. Female applicants will get additional scrutiny for recommendations and experience, too.

Heading It Off - Steps taken before accepting a job and during the pre-tenure years can help women protect themselves against discrimination, says the American Association for University Women. Here are some actions it recommends you take: 
Keep your antenna up for the culture and politics at your institution.
Cultivate friends, communities and colleagues outside your department and outside academia.
Do not expect to be rewarded for doing favors or for being flexible. 
In dire cases, consider cutting your losses early. 
Understand your rights as an employee under federal and state law. Immediately document any perceived discrimination.A program called ADVANCE, sponsored by the NSF, appears to work. For example, Georgia Tech engineering and ADVANCE professor Jane Ammons has developed a “speed mentoring” workshop, in which junior faculty consult for 20 minutes or so with experienced tenure-case reviewers to learn how to increase their odds with tenure committees. At the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, first-year female engineering students have upper-level undergraduate mentors. In addition, an NSF-funded summer research program takes advantage of “role model hierarchies” to pair female faculty with graduate students, who in turn oversee undergraduates new to the research process. “I’ve heard time and time again, ‘I never had the opportunity to work with a female faculty member,’” says Paige E. Smith, director of the Women in Engineering Program. The initiative has convinced wavering graduates that they should stay the course, she says. “They saw the faculty as real people, juggling real lives.”

Networking opportunities are springing up off campus as well. Several research collaborations resulted from dinners hosted by the small but growing female cadre of the IEEE’s Power Engineering Society, for instance. University of Maryland’s Ehrman still keeps in touch with the three other women in her undergraduate study group and meets several times a year with other women engineers on campus. (The group also compiled a department-by-department list that resulted in improved parental leave policies—too late for Ehrman, who taught a double load so she could take a semester off following the birth of her daughter last year.)
Such efforts remain discouragingly few and far between. In the meantime, women are swapping survival tips in brown-bag lunches and professional associations. Mississippi State’s Bruce favors a proactive strategy and raises the subject of lunch before the men exclude her. “If you ask them enough times, they begin to ask you,” she says. Humor is “a real positive tool,” says her colleague Schulz, who has seen people turn an inappropriate comment back on a room full of men—and get in a second jab. She also urges women to deal with issues and move on, rather than take things personally. “If you accumulate a log of all the injustices of a place, you’ll be weighed down by it. If you’re always looking back, it’s very hard to move forward in your career.”

Mary Lord is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

FEATURES
COMPETING FORCES - By Alvin P. Sanoff
MAKING IT THROUGH THE MAZE - By Mary Lord
OPENING DOORS - By Alice Daniel
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TEACHING TOOLBOX
CIRCLE OF SUPPORT - Engineering schools are developing programs to help their female students fit in. - By Margaret Loftus
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RESEARCH: A More Perfect Union - By Gary S. Was
ON CAMPUS: A Human Touch - By Lynne Shallcross
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LAST WORD: All in the Family - By Gary A. Gabriele and Jennifer Currey
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