How Do We Break The 20% Barrier?

This is the first of three discussion posts for Week 1 of Feminist Theory and the Joy of Science. You can find all posts for this course by going to the archives and clicking on “Joy of Science” under in the Category section.
This post deals with the readings by Eisenhart & Finkel and Brainard & Carlin.


“Women (Still) Need Not Apply” by Eisenhart and Finkel and “A Six-Year Longitudinal Study of Undergraduate Women in Engineering and Science” by Brainard and Carlin seem to be in conflict with each other. Can “compensatory strategies” like women in engineering (WIE) programs make a difference in recruiting underrepresented groups into science and engineering?
In the case of engineering, the history of WIE programs over the last 20 to 30 years does show a positive impact – but only up to a point. WIE directors speak to one another about the “20% barrier”. After decades of concerted, organized effort, the national average of women in engineering remains stubbornly at or below 20%. Indeed, there is some evidence that not only have we hit a plateau, we are actually in the beginning of a decline. In 1995, women were 18.5% of engineering undergraduate enrollments, rising to a high of 19.8% in 1999 then dropping to 17.2% by 2005. In absolute numbers, women’s enrollment climbed from 67,266 in 1995 to a high of 78,468 in 2001. At this point, women’s enrollment began to decline while total engineering enrollment continued to rise. (Source: NSF Women, Minorities, and Persons With Disabilities in Science and Engineering, December 2006 update, Table B-9)
In the framework of Eisenhart and Finkel, a WIE program would be seen as something that attempts to help women cope with an existing organization that is hostile to their presence and/or indifferent to their interests. It’s not just that engineering is male-dominated; it’s coded masculine in its culture and practices. Moreover, it’s coded masculine in a particular version of masculinity that is unappealing to large numbers of bright, talented men as well as women. The stereotype of the socially inept nerd, or the gearhead obsessed with technology and having few or no other interests has a very narrow market share.
Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher shows what can happen when one attends to structural issues and the issues and concerns of out-group members. As a result of Margolis and Fisher’s project, the enrollment of women in computer science rose from 8% in 1995 to 42% in 2000. This remarkable change is virtually unprecedented. In a working paper Computing For a Purpose: Gender and Attachment to Computer Science, Margolis and Fisher say:

When we interview males and females about their history, attachments and concerns about computing, we hear more females contextualize their interest in computer science within a larger purpose: what computing can do in the world, linking computer science to other arenas, rather than focusing on the workings of the computer alone. More of the males, on the other hand, express their interest primarily in terms of enjoyment of the computer itself and learning all there is to know about computing, focusing peripheral attention and concern for specific context. We should note that in each group there are men and women who are more similar than different — there are individual women who love computers and are fascinated by them, and there are males who are more interested in utility or the broadness of the field. But as a group, males’ and females’ interest in computing is articulated and shaped differently…We refer to this orientation as “computing for a purpose”, and it is one of the most significant differences we see in incoming male and female majors.

The working paper details changes that need to be made in computer science education as a result in order to attract larger numbers of women to the field.
So are WIE programs a waste of time and resources? I don’t think so, for the following reasons. If a college of engineering is going to do little or nothing to change business as usual, then a WIE program provides a safe haven for the women who do manage to slog it out in the Boy’s Club. They need a place to go once in awhile to get advice on moron management, you know. WIE programs can help reinforce the belief that it’s not abnormal for a woman to love technology. They can also help women see that one need not be completely obsessed with technology to be a “real” engineer. In this case, WIE programs are truly there just to help women deal with the status quo.
But in the best of all possible worlds, however, WIE programs would be true partners with leaders in the college of engineering in the project of reshaping the local engineering culture to make it more welcoming for all. The model might be in the way that Margolis and Fisher worked with the faculty at Carnegie Mellon. At the very least, engineering leaders need to acknowledge that cultural barriers are an issue in engineering, and that they bear responsibility in addressing them. They need to look to WIE leaders for expertise on how to do this. In this case, WIE programs are there to help engineering design and implement its own institutional transformation.
I’ve always said that women don’t need programs to help them deal with engineering; they are perfectly capable of doing engineering. Engineering needs programs to help it become more inclusive.
In The Scientific Approach, in the November 2006 special supplement to The Scientist, Clifton Poodry writes:

There is a growing literature on the barriers that minorities and women face on their career paths, and also on how and why specific interventions succeed. But much of the literature is for specialists in various fields of psychology and sociology and needs to be critically reviewed and made more accessible to scientists in other fields who are interested in contributing to change.

WIE programs can help link scientists and engineers with the relevant research from women’s studies and feminist critiques of science. Women’s studies may be the source of relevant information, but women’s studies practitioners can’t do the work of dismantling barriers and recruiting students and faculty. Neither can this work be delegated to the staff of WIE or multicultural engineering programs (MEP). Scientists and engineers have to take on this work themselves.
Indeed, the summary of the NSF report Beyond Bias and Barriers devotes a little over four of its nine pages to detailing the recommendations that various university and scientific leaders must take to “reform…the academic enterprise – its structure, incentives, and accountability – to change outcomes and achieve equity”. The remarkable and rapid change at the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science shows that it is possible to do things differently, now, if we choose to do so. And the last I heard, no one was arguing that CMU’s computer science program had collapsed in heap of mediocrity as a result of doing things differently. I wonder how many more years – decades? – we’ll continue to behave like we can do just fine without the scientific talent of the majority of our population.

  1. February 12, 2007 at 11:55 am

    Speaking as a nerdy male engineer, I, along with practically every guy in engineering I know, would love to have more women in engineering. Desperately, if you know what I mean. Maybe that’s part of the problem – we want women there but have absolutely no idea how to adapt our culture to include them.
    Imagine setting foot into a 1st year elec class as one of only a handful of girls amongst a couple hundred nerdy guys:
    “Hehehe, GIRLS!!! Hehehe [leering]”
    Not inclusive.

  2. February 12, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    Okay folks, remember this is class. So David: what are the odd talents you refer to? Is every nerdy engineer suffering from Asperger’s? Is every engineer nerdy, or is there a stereotype that engineers are or have to be nerdy, and is it this stereotype more than reality that is serving as a barrier? The research of Margolis and Fisher suggests the latter, at least for the field of computer science. See http://www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs/project/gendergap/www/working.html working paper “The Paradox of “Geek Mythology” and the Culture of Computing”.

  3. Chris
    February 12, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    Zuska,
    I’m an undergraduate in physics and have watched the gender balance decay steadily as I move into more advanced classes. I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the potential causes of this trend with gender studies folks as well as people in the sciences. I have encountered plenty of conjecture, but I have yet to see any well researched attempts to explain the situation or to locate any systematic pressures against female participation that are specific to the sciences and that seem to be born out by what I’ve seen at school (obviously, being male, I’m not an ideally placed observer, but I hope I would recognize outright discrimination). I’d be very interested to look over the research you mentioned above if you could point me to a few references. I’m also curious about a related trend. In my introductory physics course the gender split was 50-50, but only two women were left by the third semester. With the exception of one chemistry major all went into biology. Was this a fluke or does it happen elsewhere?

  4. February 13, 2007 at 2:07 am

    Why do most men remain more or less completely unaware of this information? What incentives are there for them to remain ignorant in this regard?
    I think that’s the wrong question, because it presumes that people are choosing to remain uninformed in the face of some massive force trying to inform them. Instead, I think it’s just that being uninformed is much easier than being informed. And there are very few incentives to be informed about these things. It’s easy to bemoan the gender disparity as a sensitive guy, but doing something about it is time consuming and difficult and can ruffle feathers of people who control your future (or is at least believed to be so). Thus, there is very little incentive (besides a basic sense of fairness) for guys to get involved one way or the other.

  5. February 13, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    They need a place to go once in awhile to get advice on moron management
    Everyone needs this! Seriously, dealing with assholes (clueless and wilful) is a crucial skill in pretty much all walks of life, and probably more important than usual in science (which does tend to attract the, um, differently-socialized). And yet, not only is it not taught, it’s almost never even mentioned.
    Given that women have more assholes to deal with, and fewer established ways to deal with them, I suggest that formal Asshole Management courses, beginning at the undergraduate level but with a particular focus on early postgrad, might go a long way towards redressing the slope of the gender playing field in science. Not only would women be better equipped, but one whole category of potential asshole — the well-meaning but clueless — could be largely eliminated.

  6. February 13, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    Bill, Asshole Management courses would be helpful – but that would be another compensatory strategy, wouldn’t it? What about Asshole Prevention courses? That would be a bit more radical, in my opinion. That is, let’s transition from teaching women how to deal with the jerks, to teaching people how not to be jerks. And teaching them that there is an expectation that they not behave like jerks.
    Right now, I think the atmosphere is still such that when women raise their voices to complain about sexism, or someone raises their voice to complain about racism, or any other ism, it’s perceived as “special pleading”. We’re asking someone to go out of their way to avoid affronting our tender sensibilities. That’s the kind of reaction we often get. I would like to see the climate transformed to one where, when someone does something that is offensive, people are actually offended on behalf of the person who was targeted or insulted or belittled or harassed. And they speak up about it – they don’t leave a response to the person who had the experience. Everybody takes responsibility for fostering an inclusive and welcoming work environment.

  7. February 13, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    let’s transition from teaching women how to deal with the jerks, to teaching people how not to be jerks. And teaching them that there is an expectation that they not behave like jerks.
    That was sort of my point: in making Asshole Management a formal part of the degree process, you are setting up an anti-asshole environment and making explicit what constitutes an violation of anti-asshole expectations. I wasn’t arguing that AM101 (through 505) should condone assholery! Part and parcel of teaching AM is teaching people how not to be assholes themselves. In other words, I think we are imagining the same course, so it doesn’t matter what we call it.(*)
    We already have Asshole Prevention statutes on the books, as it were (and, in fact, literally): title IX, equal opportunity, various social and community mores to which even the most diehard asshole will pay lip service, and so on. What we don’t have is a formal part of the learning process dedicated to explaining what assholery is, and how not to perpetrate it, and how to manage it if (when) you do come across it.
    It’s the formal inclusion in degree requirements that I think is so valuable: courses in calculus are part of becoming an engineer, so students absorb the idea, the attitude, that calculus is something engineers know, and do, and need, and being good at calculus is a Good Thing for an engineer. If AM were part of becoming an engineer, then not being an asshole would be something engineers know, and do, and need, and not being an asshole would be a Good Thing for an engineer — that is, part of the culture.
    —-
    (*) In fact, I’m serious about this, so we probably can’t call it “Asshole” anything. What should we call it? Social Dynamics? Management Studies?
    There’s nothing to stop us (you and me and anyone else who wants to) from putting this course together and making it available online, just as you are doing with the current course. I already have a bunch of links collected with grad students in mind — I plan to put together a wiki of “useful stuff”, to which students can also contribute. An Asshole Management course (by any other name) would be an invaluable part of such a resource — and, in fact, if ever I make it up the food chain to faculty, I will make the course a formal requirement for joining my lab. (I imagine it will incorporate a lot of material from your JoS course, but if the overlap is not too great I’ll require the JoS course too.)

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