ASEE PRISM - September 2000

Macho Men

The Dragon SlayerI noted with great interest Dr. John Weese's editorial in the March 2000 issue of Prism calling for a purge of the perceived macho complex in engineering, as part of the effort to draw more women into engineering.

The discussion of how shedding the macho mentality can help us tap into a more diverse engineering workforce was compelling, and I could not agree more wholeheartedly with this point. In light of this editorial, it was disconcerting to note within the same issue of Prism the article entitled "Dragon Slayer" about Drexel's president, Constantine Papadakis, an engineer. The article begins with a dramatic story in which Papadakis describes, during a phone call, a traditional Cretan knife "used to kill people" and laughs after saying he uses it for budget cuts. The article conveys an admiring tone for Papadakis's aggressive and controversial retooling of Drexel, attributing his method and approach, at least in part, to his being an engineer. The following quote from Papadakis is included without comment: "I listen, but I don't like to reach a decision by consensus or through majority, boards, and committees." In addition, Papadakis is presented, again in an admiring light, as a workaholic who gave up learning to play the piano for fear that he could not become as good, as fast, as his 3-year-old daughter.

I am a firm believer that engineers make good leaders in all aspects of society, not just within the profession they have trained for. However, there are many different kinds of leaders, and leadership styles, some of which are more appealing to young women than others. I believe that Papadakis's style, at least as it is portrayed in this article, exemplifies the macho mentality: ultra-competitive, aggressive, and workaholic; fearful of "losing", especially in comparison with women; inattentive to consensus as part of decision making and leadership; and even violent, at least in imagery. The very title of the article is illustrative of this latter point. If the dragon is the symbol of Drexel, did Papadakis really go there to "kill" Drexel? Or is his role actually one of transformation and promoting growth? The imagery evoked is very different in the two cases.

Papadakis may view himself as a dragonslayer, and be proud of it, more so than as a transformative leader; or he may not. Nevertheless, the question I would ask is this: just what image of the engineer do Prism, and ASEE, want to put on display? The profiles in Prism can certainly help to promote the image of the engineer--but what kind of image will it be?

Many young women are turned off from engineering because they do not have an image of engineering as a profession that helps individuals and societies lead better lives--something young women consistently identify as important to them in a career. Marketing engineers as dragonslayers is not likely to change their minds. Nor is it accurately reflective of what the vast majority of engineers do in their daily careers in industry and academia.

As I write this, I wonder what other steps ASEE's leadership has taken, or is thinking of taking, to continue the process of purging the macho image of engineering from ASEE. Dr. Weese's editorial was an important step in outlining that vision. A Prism article that focused on successful initiatives to carry it out could be of great value to ASEE's membership.

    Suzanne E. Franks
    Kansas State University


The author responds:

    I think Ms. Franks has taken the dragon slayer image of Drexel president Constantine Papadakis a bit too literally. Any leader of a company or university given the mission to turn things around to build a healthy institution is going to need to be tough and to make hard decisions quickly. The committee approach to decision making is time-consuming and rarely the best approach in a situation that demands a fast response. Papadakis's approach may appear to be macho, but it is a necessary one.

    And contrary to the writer's opinion, I spent quite a bit of time with Papadakis and was impressed with his concentrated efforts to recruit more women to Drexel and his clear admiration and encouragement for his daughter's talents. Far from being intimidated by her, he was encouraging her--something all fathers should do. I felt that anecdote about the piano playing showed a real human side to the Drexel president, and a sense of humor as well. He has been given a huge assignment, and by all accounts is putting in the time to accomplish what he was hired to do. Making monumental changes does take hours of work and dedication in any profession or industry. He has proved he is willing to make that effort, and Drexel will benefit from that focus.

    --Kerry Hannon

Editors' note: ASEE is very committed to helping attract more women to the field and to making the work environment a more comfortable place. We recently conducted the first-ever survey of women engineering educators and presented the results in a Prism cover story. In addition, the Engineering Dean's Council, plans to launch an in-depth study on how to retain women in engineering education. In Prism, we have published numerous articles focusing on the achievements of female educators; the most recent a profile on Duke University dean Christina Johnson. Interestingly, 20 percent of the people joining ASEE in the last 10 years have been women, and 38 percent of the members who are 35 and younger are women.

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