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T Shirts And Ponytails: Engineering Women Talk About Self Presentation

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2004 Annual Conference


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 20, 2004

Start Date

June 20, 2004

End Date

June 23, 2004



Conference Session

Knowing Students: Diversity & Retention

Page Count


Page Numbers

9.1149.1 - 9.1149.12

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Paper Authors

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Alisha Waller

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 1430

T-shirts and Ponytails: Women Students in Engineering Talk about Self-presentation Alisha A. Waller Georgia State University


Over the past thirty years, educators, activists, and politicians have made many calls to increase the number of women in engineering education and practice. For example, in a public hearing conducted by the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development in July of 1999, William Wulf, President of the National Academy of Engineering, testified, “Without diversity, we limit the set of life experiences that are applied, and as a result, we pay an opportunity cost – a cost in products not built, in designs not considered, in constraints not understood, and in processes not invented”1.

In 1986, 14.5% of all engineering bachelors degrees were earned by women, and by 2000, 20.5% were, an increase of six percentage points. At this time, many engineering educators believed that these numbers indicated that sex equity would be achieved in engineering as quickly as it was in medicine. Unfortunately, further investigation by Waller2 illustrates that such analysis does not provide an accurate picture. First, the total enrollment in engineering declined dramatically during the 1990s, therefore much of the increase in the percentage of women was actually due to many thousands of men leaving the field. Secondly, when the data is disaggregated by discipline, greater disparities are found. For example, Chemical Engineering increased their percentage of women graduates from 21.7% in 1986 to 35.4% in 2000; however, Electrical Engineering (the largest discipline) only increased their percentage from 12.4% to 13.3% in the same time span (which was not statistically different from no increase at all).

My analysis of this graduation data, my experiences as an engineering student and professor, and my involvement with the American Society of Engineering Education leads me to believe that a new phase of research on equity in engineering is needed. I believe this research needs to be grounded in students’ experiences and perceptions, to be based primarily in qualitative research methods, to draw from a variety of theoretical perspectives, and to be inclusive of gender, race, class, and sexuality. The project described in this paper is one small contribution to this new phase of research.

Why is self-presentation an important topic to study? Many researchers have linked a woman’s outward appearance or “self-presentation,” through clothing styles, makeup, and hairstyles, to others’ perceptions of her competence and success3 - 7. Also, for a woman in engineering, her development of an engineering identity which is consistent with her gender and racial identities is theoretically linked to her persistence decisions in engineering education and practice. Therefore, self-presentation has individual effects on female students.

Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2004, American Society for Engineering Education

Waller, A. (2004, June), T Shirts And Ponytails: Engineering Women Talk About Self Presentation Paper presented at 2004 Annual Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah.

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