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Digits of Pi: Barriers and Enablers for Women Engineering

Sheila Widnall 

This is a short form of a speech I have given at several Universities. It has been published in the NAE Bridge. I've always wanted to share it with my faculty colleagues.

In a seminar with faculty colleagues last week, we were discussing the information content of a string of numbers – OK so it was a slow day. The assertion was made that the quantity of information equaled the number of bits in the string, unless you knew that, for example, the string was the digits of Pi. Then the information quantity became essentially one. The assertion was made that all MIT freshmen knew Pi out to some outrageously large number of digits. I remarked that this seems to me like a "guy" sort of thing and I doubted that the women at MIT knew Pi out to some large number of digits.

This got me thinking whether there are other "guy" sort of things, totally irrelevant to the contributions that engineers make to our society that operate to keep women out of engineering. These "guy" things may also be real barriers in the minds of some male faculty and these faculty may unconsciously, or even consciously, tell women that women don't belong in engineering.

If women don't belong in engineering, then engineering, as a profession is irrelevant to the needs of our society. If engineering doesn't make welcome space for them, then engineering will become marginalized as other fields expand their turf to seek out and make a place for women.

So let me give you:

Sheila Widnall's top ten reasons why women are important to the profession of engineering

10. Women are a major force in our society. We are self conscious about our role and determined to be heard.

9. Women are 50% of the consumers of products in our society and make over 50% of the purchasing decisions.

8. Who today would choose a profession that did not have a significant percentage of women?

7. Women are integrators. We are experts at parallel processing, at handling many things at once. Women are comfortable in fuzzy situations.

6. Women are team builders. Women inherently practice what is now understood as an effective management style.

5. Engineering should be/could be the twenty-first century foundation for all of the professions.

4. Women are 50% of our intellectual resource. Without women, engineering will need to access, say, the upper 20% of our talent to fill its human requirements. With women, it will be able to access, say, the upper 10%.

3. Women are a major force in the professions of law, medicine, the media, politics and business.

2. Women are active in technology. Often they have simply bypassed engineering on their way to successful careers in technology.

1. Women are committed to the important values of our times, protecting the environment, product safety, education, and have the political skill to be effective in resolving these issues. They will do this with or without engineering. Women are going to be a huge force in the solution of human problems.

It seems to me that women are an essential part of the new imperative for the engineering profession if we are to be central to the solution of human problems.

The top ten reasons that women don't go into engineering

10.The image of that guy in high school that all of the teachers encouraged to study engineering.

9. Poorly taught freshman physics. Linear thinking.

8. Concerned that they won't get a date to the prom if they get the highest math score.

7. Lack of encouragement from parents and high school teachers.

6. Guys who worked on cars and computers or faculty who think they did.

5. Lack of encouragement from faculty; survival of the fittest mentality. "I treat everyone badly;" constant use of masculine pronouns describing engineers.

4. Lack of women faculty or obvious mistreatment of women faculty by colleagues and departments.

3. Bias in the math SATs.

2. Lack of visible role models and other women students in engineering.

1. Lack of connection between engineering and the problems of our society. Lack of understanding what engineers do.

These issues of language and expectations, behavior and self-esteem are still with us. Until we face them squarely, I doubt that women students will feel comfortable in engineering classrooms. I believe that all women faculty have challenges to their authority in ways that would never happen to a man. Students will call a female professor Mrs. and a male professor Professor.

At MIT, we have shepherded a revolution in the participation of women in engineering. Women are the majority in three of our eight engineering courses. Anyone who has taught in this environment would report that it has improved the educational climate for everyone, including women graduate students and women faculty.

Ten top reasons why women are not welcome in engineering

10. We had a woman student/faculty member/engineer once and it didn't work out.

9. Women will get married.

8. If we hire a woman, the government will take over and restrict our options.

7. If you criticize a woman, she will cry.

6. Women can't take a joke.

5. Women can't go to offsite locations.

4. If we admit more women, they will suffer discrimination in the workplace and will not be able to contribute financially as alumni. [I kid you not: That is an actual quote.]

3. There are no women interested in engineering.

2. Women make me feel uncomfortable.

1. I want to mentor, support, advise, evaluate people who look like me.

So how do we increase the number of women students and make our profession a leader in tackling tough societal problems? What do we need?

My list of the ten effectors

10. Effective TV and print material for high school and junior high girls about career choices.

9. Engineering courses designed to evoke and reward different learning styles.

8. Faculty who realize that having women in the class improves the education for everyone.

7. Mentors who seek out women for encouragement.

6. Role models: examples of successful women in a variety of fields who are treated with dignity and respect.

5. Appreciation and rewards for diverse problem solving skills.

4. Visibility for the accomplishments of engineering that are seen as central to important problems facing our society.

3. Internships and other industrial opportunities.

2. Re-examination of admission and evaluation criteria.

1. Effective and committed leadership from faculty and senior administration.

However, we do have a good bit of housecleaning to do. We must recognize that women are differentially affected by a hostile climate. Treat a male student badly and he will think you're a jerk. Treat a female student badly and she will think you have finally discovered that she doesn't belong in engineering. It's not easy being a pioneer. It's not easy having to prove every day that you belong. It's not easy being invisible or having your ideas credited to someone else.

What I want to see are engineering classrooms full of bright, young, enthusiastic students, both male and female in roughly equal proportions, who are excited about the challenge of applying scientific and engineering principles to the technical problems facing our society. They will connect with the important issues facing our society. Then I will know that the engineering profession has a future contribution to make to our society.

Coda: I sent out drafts of this speech to women engineering faculty at MIT and beyond and received many inputs and suggestions; many have been incorporated. Although I consider this piece to be more poetry than science, I was extremely gratified by a common reaction from women faculty: that they had been "heard."

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