PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo NOVEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 3
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A Winning Profession

By Gary A. Gabriele and Jennifer Currey


As father and eldest daughter, we’ve shared a lot over the years. Recently, we’ve been able to share a number of common experiences associated with earning an engineering degree and now a Ph.D. In the future, we hope to also share experiences of teaching engineering. While there are almost 30 years between the relative experiences, there is a lot of common ground from which questions and advice can be exchanged. But we discovered a distinct difference in our experiences when the question of the best time to start a family was raised. Questions such as which courses to take and how to get through a thesis represented common experiences; however this question was a clear signal that our teaching careers could be quite different.

It’s been our experience that most engineering faculty (i.e. the men), don’t realize how big the differences can be. Becoming an engineering faculty member is a major step for anyone, but for women, it represents a major gamble. A recent article in Science magazine sheds some light on the major barriers facing women engineering faculty: the lack of women pursuing engineering Ph.D.s, a hostile or chilly climate within the academy, unconscious bias of colleagues and mentors and the challenges of balancing family and work. As the present and future guardians of this very important profession, we all need to participate in deconstructing these barriers. We offer the following suggestions as a start.

First, recognize that we have a problem when it comes to attracting young women to engineering. The extent of the problem is highlighted in a study just released by the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project Coalition. This report explores why high school girls who are academically qualified for engineering study are not choosing engineering. Among the findings, engineering is a man’s profession with few women role models, engineering schools have a male-dominated culture and you can’t have much of an impact on society as an engineer. It’s clear that there’s a lot that needs improvement in engineering education. One place to start is by going beyond talking about just the technology and talking about what can be accomplished with the technology.

Second, recognize that the culture of our education comes from a long history of being taught by white males to white males. Our curriculum, our hiring practices and our promotion and tenure processes all have evolved structures and practices that in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways discourage the participation of women. There is a good amount of literature on this subject that all of us need to be aware of, and we need to begin to address it in each of our departments and colleges.

Third, learn to mentor young women, particularly encouraging them to go to graduate school. But recognize that some choices they will face might be much clearer for a man than for a woman. There are many resources available that can help improve the mentoring of young women, including the Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network.

And finally, we must recognize that a more diverse engineering faculty is good for the profession and for society. The problems our students will be asked to solve during their careers will be so complex and multidimensional that leaving their solutions to a profession heavily dominated by one segment of society will likely not lead to the most creative solutions.

Gary A. Gabriele is the NSF division director of the Engineering Education and Centers and professor of mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Jennifer Currey is a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.


OPENING DOORS - By Alice Daniel
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TECH VIEW: Think Big, Teach Small - By Mary Kathleen Flynn
CIRCLE OF SUPPORT - Engineering schools are developing programs to help their female students fit in. - By Margaret Loftus
BOOK REVIEW: The World Is Flat - By Robin Tatu
RESEARCH: A More Perfect Union - By Gary S. Was
ON CAMPUS: A Human Touch - By Lynne Shallcross
LAST WORD: All in the Family - By Gary A. Gabriele and Jennifer Currey


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