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Bringing in the First Woman



Author(s) Michael Pritchard
Authoring Institution Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University
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Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
Notes Case study originally published in “Teaching Engineering Ethics: A Case Study Approach” by Michael Pritchard. Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University, 1992.
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Authoring Institution (obsolete) Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University
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Year 1992
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
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  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    Imagine yourself walking down a street in an unfamiliar
    neighborhood at night. You come to a corner, and you have two
    choices--walking down a well-lighted street or walking down a
    dark alley. Which one do you choose? You probably picked the
    well-lighted street. Given the circumstances, this seems like
    the reasonable choice. But why? Your choice illustrates a facet
    of decision making that has received a great deal of research
    support. When people are asked to make a decision in the
    absence of full information (you really don't know anything
    about this hypothetical neighborhood), they usually make their
    decision on the basis of stereotypes. We choose well-lighted
    streets because we think they will be safer. In this situation,
    we are probably right, but what about other situations?

    In this case, the engineers at the Sunnyvale division of
    Universal Corporation make a decision with only limited
    information, and they make it on the basis of stereotypes. When
    they hear that their new supervisor is a woman, their
    perception of her conforms to their stereotyped notions of a
    "woman boss," and they react to her accordingly. They really
    don't know anything about her, but they assume that they will
    have a hard time with her because she is a woman and not like
    them. And they do. They see her as a "pushy and somewhat
    aggressive feminist" because she responds to a remark by saying
    that her private life is her own affair and that she should be
    called "Ms." not "Miss" or "Mrs." They never really give her a
    chance to prove herself as a supervisor. In a way, they are
    experiencing a self-fulfilling prophecy. They believe that they
    will not be able to get along with a female boss (probably
    because they have never worked with one before) and so they are
    not able to get along with Joan.

    Joan Dreer also reacts on the basis of her past experience
    and stereotypes. She has been sexually harassed by her
    supervisor at her previous assignment for the company. When she
    hears the engineers debating what to call her, she reacts
    defensively. She overhears a conversation that seems sexist and
    she reacts "tersely." She never gives them an opportunity to
    explain their perception. Her behavior is understandable given
    her past experiences on the job, but the engineers don't know
    this and her reaction only confirms their stereotype of a
    humorless female boss.

    A great deal of research has been conducted on the problems
    faced by organizational tokens--people in the minority on their
    jobs. In this case, Joan Dreer is a token because she is the
    first woman engineer at Sunnyvale. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in her
    book Men and Women of the Corporation (Basic
    Books, 1977), has written that organizational tokens are
    continually reminded that they are different than other people
    in the organization. The token "stands out" from the group, and
    his or her behavior is continually scrutinized. The group is
    likely to see the token's behavior in stereotyped ways because
    there are not enough tokens to contradict the group's view of
    the "typical" other.

    Joan's problems as a token are magnified by the attitudes of
    the other engineers. Jim Grimaldi reacts to her situation by
    "blaming the victim." He notes that, "women aren't really
    suited for this kind of work." His evidence for this statement
    seems to be that Joan's subordinates "seem to have been
    dragging their feet in small ways" and "other groups have also
    been showing some reluctance to cooperate with the groups under
    Joan Dreer's supervision." Are these behaviors due to Joan's
    supervisory techniques or to the negative feelings of the
    engineers she supervises? Grimaldi never really discusses her
    actions as a supervisor. He blames all of the actions of the
    work groups on her and does not assume that they are
    responsible for their own behavior.

    One way to test the ethical situation presented by this case
    is to put yourself in the position of the person being
    criticized. How would you react if you were Joan? Imagine that
    you are the only one of your group (male, female, young,
    African-American, Asian, handicapped, etc.) in this situation.
    How would you feel if people treated you like they treated
    Joan? How would you want to be treated?

    All workers deserve to be given a chance to prove themselves
    on the job. It is sometimes difficult to overcome our
    stereotypes, but we need to be careful not to let previous
    perceptions interfere with our current judgments. Joan deserves
    her chance to prove herself as a supervisor.

  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago


    Jim may feel initially that he has no obligation to do
    anything special to prepare for Joan's arrival. He may believe
    that it is the responsibility of supervisors and of the persons
    they supervise to work out any conflicts that may arise. He may
    feel that if women are to function effectively as managers at
    Universal, then they must be able to deal with and overcome the
    sorts of attitudes that are in evidence among the male
    engineers at Sunnyvale without any special consideration or

    However, this would be a superficial and shortsighted
    attitude for Jim to have. Joan should not have to overcome more
    obstacles because she is a woman than she would have to
    overcome if she were a man. Perhaps it is true that the world
    is imperfect and that women do often have to overcome
    additional obstacles. However, those obstacles should at least
    be minimized, and Jim seems to be the best person to minimize
    them in this situation. Therefore, Jim should discuss with the
    engineers whom Joan will supervise what the company policy is
    regarding women employees at Universal, why it is important to
    accept and implement that policy at Sunnyvale, why Joan is
    qualified for the job that she has been assigned, and why it is
    important both for Joan and for the engineers that she will
    supervise not to make her job more difficult than it already
    is. To make Joan's job more difficult simply because she is a
    woman would be unfair. It is one's ethical obligation not only
    not to cause injustice but also to prevent and correct
    injustices cause by others. The engineers whom Joan will
    supervise should not place obstacles in her way, and Jim should
    take reasonable measures to prevent them from doing so.


    At first glance, this appears to be a case in which duties
    of justice, to Joan and to women generally, conflict with the
    "safety, health, and welfare of the general public." If viewed
    in this light, it seems reasonable to conclude that, while
    social justice is important as a long-term goal, the more
    urgent and immediate concern is public safety, which, if not
    accorded primary importance, may result in deaths and serious
    injury. However, there may be a way of resolving the
    difficulties without removing Joan from her supervisory
    position. One idea is to have a meeting of all of the engineers
    that Joan supervises and of the engineers in the groups that
    are not cooperating with Joan's groups together with Joan
    herself and Jim. The purpose of such a meeting would be to try
    to get people's feelings expressed openly and to try to clear
    the air. This meeting would, no doubt, be unpleasant especially
    for Joan, who may be unwilling to subject herself to such an
    ordeal. But the end result might be an eventual meeting of
    minds or at least an accommodation that would enable the groups
    to function effectively and in a timely fashion. Of course, the
    risk is that the meeting, and the expression of feelings,
    resentments, etc., might make matters worse. However, it would
    be a risk worth taking, especially if the current state of
    affairs were unacceptable, since it may salvage something from
    the current situation. It would have to be made clear to
    everyone that, whatever the outcome, future work must be of
    acceptably high quality and also must be completed on

    What if Joan and the male engineers cannot reach a suitable
    accommodation? It is unlikely that attempting to coerce the
    engineers into changing their behavior in a satisfactory way
    would be successful. Even if the resisting engineers could all
    be replaced, which is highly unlikely, firing them seems too
    drastic. Thus, if something must give, removing Joan from her
    supervisory position seems to be a lesser evil than removing
    the engineers that she is now supervising. However, before
    taking further action, Jim should re-examine his own attitudes
    about women supervisors at Sunnyvale and about Joan in
    particular. His statements that "Joan came on as a pushy and
    somewhat aggressive feminist" and that "[w]omen aren't really
    suited for this kind of work" indicate that Jim himself harbors
    some anti-women prejudices and is not completely sold on having
    women supervisors under his direction. For example, would a man
    who exhibited Joan's behavior be described in some similar
    derogatory way, or would he be characterized more positively as
    "ambitious and hard-driving"? Maybe Jim should be more honest
    with himself about his own attitudes toward women as
    professional colleagues. Perhaps some soul-searching would help
    him both to understand the attitudes of the male engineers at
    Sunnyvale and to do what is necessary to help Joan succeed in a
    supervisory capacity.


    This background information certainly does explain Joan's
    very defensive reaction to her first encounter with the male
    engineers at Sunnyvale. And perhaps it represents a common
    experience of far too many women who try to succeed in
    traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering. If so,
    then perhaps it shows that it is not enough simply to remove
    barriers that have traditionally kept women out of engineering
    altogether--e.g. discouraging women from majoring in
    engineering in college, the absence of role models for women
    who might be inclined to choose engineering as a career, etc.
    Perhaps it shows that, without aggressively and consistently
    encouraging women to enter engineering and to remain in
    engineering and changing the culture of engineering so that
    women engineers are not viewed as oddities, the day when women
    will be fully accepted in engineering will not arrive in the
    foreseeable future. If so, then perhaps in the interests of
    social justice and of not depriving engineering of the talents
    and intelligence of over 50% of the population "special
    treatment" for women engineers is warranted. Such special
    treatment would include recognizing that women engineers
    typically must overcome many obstacles that men do not usually
    have to contend with. In this case, Joan must deal with sexual
    harassment, which men ordinarily do not encounter. Her
    defensive reaction to what may have been intended only to be
    humorous and innocent is much more understandable and excusable
    in light of her background. Even though the male engineers
    perhaps did not know this about her at the time, their
    awareness of the fact that her circumstances are unfortunately
    all too common for professional women should help them not to
    overreact to her behavior. It should also help Jim Grimaldi to
    create an atmosphere at Sunnyvale in which incidents like her
    initial encounter with the engineers do not occur or, if they
    do occur, they are quickly defused and do not escalate into
    situations like that occurring in Scenario II.

  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    Anyone who identifies (as should we all) with the feminist
    cause of furthering equal rights and equal opportunities for
    women will find plenty to dislike in this case. It is not too
    much to say that it is saturated with various kinds and levels
    of sexual prejudice.

    Fortunately, however, those same features do make the case a
    useful one for some brief criticism and analysis of the vast,
    pervasive world of prejudice about women. Some idea of the
    magnitude of this mixture of social and ethical problems
    becomes apparent through looking closely at the conventional
    ways of thinking and talking about women which occur in this
    case. Sadly, these are indeed all too conventional and common.
    Sex prejudice is so widespread and ingrained in our culture
    that most of the time we hardly even notice it.

    First, some ethical basics. Surely we can agree that people
    with unprejudiced views of men and women would treat them both
    simply as human beings or persons. This means that any special
    features distinguishing women from men, and vice-versa, would
    be ignored in making business or professional judgments about a
    person of either sex. The ethical imperative that women ought
    to be treated equally with men implies exactly this point, that
    we ought to ignore sex differences in assessing people in the

    Put in this general form, perhaps most if not all people
    will agree with this principle. It is exactly analogous to the
    widely accepted, anti-racist principle that we ought to ignore
    differences of race among workers. Yet at the same time almost
    no one is prepared to actually apply our anti-sexist principle
    to concrete situations such as those described in this case.
    For if they did, cases such as this one would become utterly

    To see this, try replacing all terms referring to women in
    the case with similar terms referring to persons, or to men. If
    the case presented an unprejudiced view of women, the
    replacement should make no difference to the business problems
    being presented, but in fact such replacements change
    everything. Clearly we are relying on all kinds of specific
    attitudes or beliefs specifically about women (about female
    humans rather than about humans in general) in our
    understanding of and judgements about women in the case. Hence
    we must conclude that the case, as filtered through our
    conventional understanding of it, is systematically sexist.

    It is useful to bring in a comparison to racism once again,
    because racist prejudices are somewhat more under control in
    U.S. society than are sexist attitudes. This is not to say that
    racism has been eliminated, but just that it is no longer so
    acceptable for most people to unthinkingly adopt traditional
    racist attitudes in dealing with business problems.

    Try a similar experiment of word-substitution as before, but
    this time use some racial description (such as 'black') in
    place of the references to women. The result is a revealing
    intermediate case. Some problems may seem to remain, yet it is
    embarrassingly clear that they are problematic only because of
    our residual or latent racist attitudes. (A common explanation
    of our perceptions in a case such as this is as follows. We
    have become 'sensitized' through the civil rights movement,
    etc., to the issue of racism, so it's difficult not to perceive
    racism and feel guilty about it in such cases.)

    These experiments should be sufficient to show the sexism in
    the current case, and in our habitual perceptions of such
    cases. But it might be thought that nevertheless we haven't
    made any real progress toward solving the problems. Even if it
    is conceded that the 'problems' only seem problematic to people
    in a sexist society, aren't there still real issues of how to
    ameliorate or eliminate such pervasive sexist attitudes in the

    The answer to this question is yes, sexist attitudes are
    indeed serious problems, which do need to be worked on. But
    note that this issue is no longer about women in the workplace
    (the overt focus of the current case), but instead it is about
    attitudes to women in the workplace. Women are the victims of
    such attitudes, yet our society is so prejudiced that we
    unthinkingly see the women themselves in such cases as being
    'the problem', rather than the sexist attitudes which they (and
    to a lesser degree all who are 'sensitized' to the problem)
    have to endure. In effect we are 'blaming the victim' in such

    How should we go about eliminating sexist attitudes? That is
    a big question, but there is one serious trap which must
    briefly be mentioned and defused. It is all too easy to think
    that the central problems in sexist attitudes must come from
    incorrect beliefs or assumptions about the abilities or
    personalities of women. The cure then might seem to be
    educational or publicity exercises in which successful, popular
    women demonstrate their abilities and hence change the beliefs
    of their audience.

    Certainly successful women can act as 'role models' for
    other women, and help to eliminate a few extreme beliefs in the
    general populace such as 'no women could ever do X', where X is
    something that the successful woman demonstrates she can do.
    However, such approaches are still deeply enmeshed in sexist
    attitudes, because even the most successful of such
    demonstrations is still focussed on the woman's abilities as a
    woman, rather than simply as a person.

    To see why this is problematic, imagine that a business
    demonstration by a woman is so charismatic and successful that
    the audience come to believe that women in general would make
    ideal bosses. It should be clear that all we have done is to
    replace one sexist attitude (women are bad bosses, because they
    are women) with another (women are ideal or excellent bosses,
    because they are women.) This latter attitude would doubtless
    be easier to live with than the former, but a prejudice in
    favor of women is still, inescapably, prejudice!

    What has gone wrong here, in this misguided attempt to
    eliminate sexism? Most basically, it has confused the moral
    imperative, that everyone ought to treat woman equally, with a
    purely factual claim to the effect that women are at least
    equal in ability, etc., to men. Whether or not this claim is
    true (or even meaningful) is totally irrelevant to the moral
    issue of sex equality.

    If we do resolve to live up to our obligation to treat women
    equally, what is needed instead is a quite different
    educational program from the above. Our obligation is to ignore
    differences of sex in the workplace. Hence we would not
    tolerate sexist attitudes, because they are incompatible with
    ignoring sex differences. We would seek not to reform or
    'improve' such attitudes (through the use of positive role
    models, etc.), but to totally suppress and destroy them, at
    least as far as any public expressions of them are

    This may sound excessively protective of women, in that we
    would be out to silence their sexist critics. But the other
    side of the coin is that women would get no special treatment
    whatsoever under this simple but demanding ethical approach. If
    a woman boss manages poorly, she would be treated exactly like
    any other poor manager, including being fired if necessary. The
    desire of head office to get more women into managerial
    positions would also be resisted as sexist interference. Any
    person of either sex would be judged purely on their own
    specific abilities to 'get the job done'. Why would any
    unprejudiced person want anything else?

Cite this page: "Bringing in the First Woman" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 OEC Accessed: Thursday, July 11, 2019 <>