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On Women in the ME Department

John H. Lienhard V

It's tempting to view our department's gender gap as a numbers game, but it's really a failure of our mission in education and research. We fail in our education of young women by providing them with too few role models of women as engineers. We fail in our education of young men by providing too few models of collaboration between male and female engineers. We are missing the diversity of problem-solving styles that more women might add – perhaps a stronger atmosphere of collaboration and a less confrontational style of doing our work. Women in larger numbers might also inspire new attitudes about research directions. Moreover, women's participation in the workforce is large and growing, a trend that must be mirrored in our programs if we are to be relevant to the world outside.

The numbers, of course, describe our situation clearly. Our department has 31% women in its undergraduate program and 14% women in its graduate program [1]. The total number of women has been essentially constant over the past decade, although the percentages have risen slightly owing to a decline in the number of men. The graduate figure masks progressive attrition, however, as roughly 20% of our SM students are women, while just 5-10% of Ph.D students are. The attrition continues into the professorial ranks, where we now have only one tenured woman faculty member and one untenured woman in a department of 60 faculty positions.

What is an "appropriate number" of women? The biological standard would be a bit over 50% or 30 women faculty. If we simply matched our undergraduate population, then the figure would be 19 women. Were we to match the percentage of women who received Ph.Ds in mechanical engineering in 1999 nationwide [2], women would amount to 11.1% of the faculty for a total of about 7. If we matched the percentage at the 36 top engineering schools, women would be 8.5% of our faculty – and 19% of our untenured faculty [3]. The fraction of women in the Ph.D level engineering labor force in 1997 was about 7% [4], and, while the ME profession does worse in this regard, our own number-one-ranked department has some responsibility for the national situation. Our department can clearly do much better.

We do not know why so many women drop out of our profession at each stage of the career path. We speculate endlessly. We collect anecdotes from some women, which we then generalize to other women. Effective solutions will need to be based upon factual premises, but until the causes are clearly understood, we must act to treat the symptoms and attempt more fundamental change using some reasonable hypotheses.

One such hypothesis is that both the low number of women on our faculty and the small number of women pursuing Ph.D degrees are symptoms of a larger cultural problem in science and engineering. This problem has to do with the type of working environment we present, the perceived quality of academic life, and our accommodation of broad work-and-family issues. Abundant evidence supports this hypothesis [5-11]. This cultural problem is not unique to MIT; however, the numbers suggest that it is stronger in MIT's ME department than in a number of other engineering and science departments.

We are taking two lines of attack on our problem. One track comprises direct efforts to raise the number of women here. The other track is to identify how our working environment may negatively affect women.


Strategies Aimed at Attracting More Women
The woman faculty headcount is a very direct measure of our progress, and our department is working hard to identify outstanding women to join our faculty. The other part of the equation is to raise the number of women into our graduate program, especially at the Ph.D level.

In the area of faculty searches, we have formed a standing faculty hiring committee with oversight responsibility for the ad hoc committees that are looking in any particular field. This committee includes women and minority faculty, and the Department Head is also a member of this committee. This committee monitors the outreach efforts of the ad hoc committees, reviews the files of all women and minority applicants in parallel to the ad hoc committees, and maintains a database of potential faculty candidates (including both women and men).

Oversight is really too strong a word for the standing committee, however. Our ad hoc committees are making remarkable efforts – perhaps as never before – to find women candidates. We have six searches running this semester, and together they have interviewed as many women as all the searches in ME during the past five years. The results are impressive: the one search to finish at this point recommended two women; and the other continuing searches have turned up additional outstanding women. And these women are rising to the top owing to their technical abilities alone; gender was not a determinant in making the selection.


Strategies Aimed at the Working Environment
Our working environment is a social organization developed by men. In the past, we have not focused on understanding the impact of that organization on the participation of women in ME. While this problem has many dimensions, some of which can only be addressed at the Institute level (tenure and child bearing or junior faculty housing, for example), some items on our department's agenda are the following.

Mentoring: The hiring of a new faculty member must be followed through by cultivation. We have now instituted a formal mentoring system, which we hope will help our young faculty reach their full potential. This is a strong departure from past practices, in which one sometimes sensed that "figuring it out for yourself" was a sign of high ability. This mentoring system is gender blind.

Inclusion: Last year, I asked a group of women professors from other schools what they viewed as the barriers to women faculty. Their foremost concern, unanimously, was that they are often left out of the loop about developments in their departments and about the evaluation processes that affect them. I have heard the same comments from women in the MIT ME Department, and many of the findings of the Women in Engineering report bear on this issue as well.

Beyond the "power issues" involved, as detailed in the Women in Engineering report, inclusion means developing a more collaborative atmosphere. If groups of faculty can act with authority on matters of common interest, women can be equal partners with their colleagues in decision-making and direction setting.

Work and Family: A major recommendation of the Women in Science report was to "change the presumption that women who have children cannot achieve equally with men or with women who do not have children." This means accommodating family life and recognizing family commitments as a normal part of a successful faculty career.

Many women engineers seek to have both children and a career; often their partner also has a career. A 1998 study found that, in 60% of all two-parent families, both partners work [8]. Only 17% of all families conform to the model of a wage-earning father with a stay-at-home wife and children. Our students and our younger colleagues have different expectations in life than did their parents' generation.

Indeed, a number of years ago an older professor sat me down and explained that it was not possible for my wife to work full time now that we had children and that my career would suffer if she continued. He meant well – his views reflected his own family's decisions – but one can easily imagine the impact of such attitudes on women in academia.

A number of our younger faculty now have families with two careers and kids, and we should ensure that our graduate students and our junior faculty are aware that, while having two careers and kids is not easy, those who choose to do so can do it successfully.

Building Community: Many women faculty, and many men, have expressed the view that our department is neither a friendly nor a supportive environment. Why is this particularly a "women" issue? Much anecdotal evidence suggests that women are less comfortable with unpleasant interpersonal interchanges than are men [6], and more than one woman on the MIT faculty has made this comment to the author. We are a large department with many competing interests, and such civility comes as more of a challenge to us than it might in a smaller group. The essence of a solution is to ensure mutual respect in our interactions and a sensitivity to one another's personal circumstances.

Some of the issues, however, are deeper. A colleague once described his experience in getting tenure as "seven years of hazing." Faculty who come through our tenure process have learned to be very self-reliant and very thick skinned. This translates into a climate in which sharp criticism is the norm. Moreover, many of us have come to view this type of toughness as an essential tool in maintaining our number-one standing among ME departments.

To close with something extreme, let me note that the problem of tenure-as-hazing and the problem of tenure-and-childbirth would both be solved by eliminating tenure!


1 Profile of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, 1991-2000. Cambridge: MIT Provost's Office, 2000.

2 Susan T. Hill, Science and Engineering Doctorate Awards: 1999. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, Division of Resources Studies, 2001. (NSF-01-314).

3 D.N. Wormley, Survey of Women and Minorities at Leading Engineering Schools, PowerPoint document. Pennsylvania State University, April 2001.

4 Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 2000 (NSF-00-327).

5 Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science, A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1999.

6 H. Etzkowitz, C. Kemelgot, M. Neuschatz, B. Uzzi, "Barriers to Women in Academic Science and Engineering," in W. Pearson and I. Fletcher (eds.), Who Will Do Science? Educating the Next Generation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

7 Land of Plenty: Diversity as America's Competitive Edge in Science, Engineering, and Technology, Report of the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development (CAWMSET). September 2000.

8 Catalyst, Two Careers, One Marriage: Making it Work in the Workplace. New York: Catalyst, 2000.

9 Catalyst, Women in Engineering: An Untapped Resource. New York: Catalyst, 1992.

10 S. Majetich and C. Amon, "Faculty Report on Diversity," Presidential Diversity Advisory Council, Carnegie Mellon University, May 2001.

11 Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Engineering, Report of the Committees on the Status of Women Faculty. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, March 2002.

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