June 18, 2006
June 18, 2006
June 21, 2006
11.1455.1 - 11.1455.7
Women on the Margin of Engineering: Acceptable and Unacceptable Theses
What demographics should an engineering faculty reflect, and how might it acceptably differ in appearance from its students, the broader community, or the narrower complex of professionals and research consumers it purports to serve? Of course, we are horribly partial to our own DNA, but we can also reason through to the needs of society and put aside our personal bias. Similarly, our professional and research colleagues (perhaps most akin to us) should also be willing to defer to our expertise, when we select appropriate faculty fellows. While the broader community may not understand our expertise (disciplinary or collegial), they seem primarily concerned that we not raise their mill levy, seduce their sons and daughters, or (successfully) man the barricades. So long as we look reasonably penurious, chaste, and bungling, the broader community will probably, within limits, be less concerned with how we might otherwise appear.
We will (hopefully) spend more time with our students than with either those who hire our students, or the general public and special interests that support our institutions. Consequently, the face we turn to our students is arguably more important. Faculty may need to defer to what their students (reasonably or not) consider conducive to their own learning experience. This may mean that faculty need to either expose or conceal erudition—may need to either fraternize or distance themselves from their students—and may need to look either sufficiently like or unlike their students to both teach and motivate.
Lawrence Summers, in his cavalier remarks to the National Bureau of Economic Research Conference in January of 2005, may have been more provocative than he had intended. Noting the under-representation of women on engineering faculties at “top-25” research universities, he proposed the intentionally grating thesis that the fault lies with women, rather than with the patterns of faculty search and selection. While he doesn’t deny the contribution of systematic bias, he feels it more cogent to believe that women may generally lack an innate proclivity within the underrepresented disciplines (his “biology” thesis). Alternately, women may lack the desire and/or a gender role consistent with clocking 80-hour workweeks, behind an appropriately mementoed desk, over the requisite span of decades needed to produce the kind of academic track record naturally sought in new hires (what he calls the “high-powered job” thesis).
Since the institutions being considered are looking for faculty among the extreme outliers within the considered disciplines (Summers suggests something on the order of 3½ to 4 Standard Deviations), you wouldn’t expect such individuals to be very representative of the population they so out-distance. In fact, the act of seeking faculty among such outliers might itself be considered a source of systemic bias. I suppose that both of Summers’ theses might be put to better use in trying to account for the under-representation of women on more modest engineering faculties. To keep his theses more consistently focused on the intrinsic, putative weakness of women applicants, I prefer to consider them the objective (biological) and subjective (psychological) theses.
Haws, D. (2006, June), Women On The Margin Of Engineering: Acceptable And Unacceptable Theses Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--26
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