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The Portia Hypothesis: Mechanical Engineering Student Perceptions of Qualifications

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Mechanical Engineering Technical Session: Outreach and Retention

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Mechanical Engineering

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Leigh S. McCue George Mason University

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Leigh McCue is an Associate Professor in George Mason University's Department of Mechanical Engineering. Dr. McCue received her BSE degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in 2000 from Princeton University. She earned her graduate degrees from the University of Michigan in Aerospace Engineering (MSE 2001) and Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering (MSE 2002, PhD 2004).

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The Portia Hypothesis, named for Shakespeare’s Portia in The Merchant of Venice who disguises herself as a man so as to be able to participate in legal proceedings, postulates that individuals with masculine first names are more likely to be successful in legal professions. Various studies have demonstrated this effect in hiring for legal (Coffey & McLaughlin, 2009), musical (Goldin and Rouse, 1997), academic psychology (Steinpreis et al, 1999), and STEM fields (Moss-Racusin et al, 2012; Davidson, 2015) amongst others (Acosta and Callahan, n.d.). Racial discrimination has been similarly demonstrated in resume reviews (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2003; Oreopoulos, 2011; Turczynski, 2019). Racial and/or gender bias is apparent in letters of recommendation (Dutt et al, 2016; Schmader et al, 2007; Trix & Psenka, 2003), awarding of research grants (Ginther et al, 2011), standards of competence (Biernat & Kobrynowicz, 1997), performance evaluations (Sackett, 1991), and hiring (Georgi, 2000; Sagaria, 2002).

Students are victims of these biases, resulting in stereotype threat potentially effecting field selection (Storage et al, 2016), classroom performance (Keller, 2007), and creating a perception amongst some students that they need to “whiten” their resumes (Kang et al, 2016) to be competitive in their job search. At the same time, students continue to propagate these biases. As noted in a recent Physics Today article on student evaluations of teaching (SETs), “The degree of disparity varies by discipline, course, level, institution, and other factors, but across the board, SETs penalize women, underrepresented minorities, nonnative English speakers, and older and physically less attractive instructors of both sexes,” (Feder, 2020).

It is therefore of great interest to better understand the conscious or unconscious biases present in modern day students with respect to race and gender. Through understanding the biases of current students, one can better anticipate the intervention needs of the future workforce. For example, a recent study of nursing and psychology students identified an implicit bias against overweight individuals which enabled identification of possible nursing curricular revisions, such as teaching future nurses about the experiences of obese patients and methods to communicate “evidence-based recommendations for weight loss without stigmatizing patients,” (Waller et al, 2012). Study of engineering student race and gender biases prior to entering the workforce will help inform educational interventions that may be taken to mitigate long-term effects of such biases on the workforce of the future.

With that in mind, and to frame a classroom discussion on diversity and inclusion, students in a required senior-level Mechanical Engineering course at George Mason University were provided one of two resumes to review. The two resumes contained either a typically female or male first name but were otherwise identical. When asked to provide both quantitative and qualitative assessment of qualifications of the two candidates, participating students gave the female resume lower quantitative marks and honed in on non-technical and language skills more so than they did in their evaluations of the male candidate. This paper presents the findings of this initial study and outlines a path toward a more comprehensive look at gender-bias in engineering student perceptions of qualifications.

McCue, L. S. (2020, June), The Portia Hypothesis: Mechanical Engineering Student Perceptions of Qualifications Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35357

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