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Students’ and Professionals’ Responses to Sexist Comments in Engineering

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division: Student Issues as Related to Culture

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1434.1 - 26.1434.18



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Paper Authors

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Beth A. Powell Tennessee Technological University

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Joanna Wolfe Carnegie Mellon University

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Students’ and Professionals’ Responses to Sexist Comments in EngineeringRecent research has suggested that many women in engineering believe sexism is nolonger a major issue, but a perusal of blogs and popular media shows many anecdotes ofsexism amongst engineers and scientists. However, surprisingly little educationalmaterial specifically on this topic exists. Thus, this study sought to answer the questions,how prevalent are sexist behaviors in engineering schools, and how can students respondwhen encountering these inappropriate behaviors?In order to find answers to these questions, we interviewed 111 engineering students,faculty members, and professionals (64% female) recruited from a variety of universitiesand companies across the U.S. We both asked participants about their personalexperience and used a method called a discourse completion interview to ask participantsto tell us how they would respond to two real-life scenarios containing sexist comments.We found that three-fourths of professionals and over one-third of students hadexperienced inappropriate behaviors that could be labeled as sexist. Furthermore, wefound major differences in how students and others perceive particular behaviors. Forinstance, while close to half of professionals and faculty perceived a student joking aboutrape in a classroom setting as “completely inappropriate”—and a problem that couldpotentially require HR action—most students indicated that they would either ignore thecomment or joke back because the speaker was not serious and had no malicious intent.By contrast, students were much more inclined to confront a comment that mostprofessionals perceived as a minor irritation and not worth the effort of responding.Our findings also indicate that faculty members were both concerned about studentsencountering inappropriate sexist behaviors and confused about what to do. For instance,there was strong consensus among professionals that the instructor in the rape jokesituation needed to address the entire class to clarify sexual harassment policies.However, faculty members were unclear on how to proceed. Many were reluctant toaddress the whole class because they did not want to “punish the innocent”; some saidthey would refer the situation to a higher authority, like the dean, because they feltuncomfortable; and one-fourth outright admitted they “did not know” what they shoulddo.We did find evidence, though, that sexual harassment training can help faculty respondmore effectively to such situations. The faculty at one campus that mandates harassmenttraining every two years were more likely than others to take action and were much moreaware of HR policies and proper professional expectations.These findings suggest that students and faculty would benefit from training that couldhelp them better understand what constitutes harassment and provide them with strategiesfor handling these situations. While we were relieved to find no evidence of sexistbehaviors from faculty, sexism and sexual harassment among students are still issuesdeserving the attention of engineering educators.

Powell, B. A., & Wolfe, J. (2015, June), Students’ and Professionals’ Responses to Sexist Comments in Engineering Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24771

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