A detailed abstract of article from the January 1995 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education.
Author(s): Robby Henes, Mary Margaret Bland, Jeannie Darby, and Karen McDonald
Although there are many more women in engineering today than there were 30 years ago, we are still far from reaching equal representation of men and women. It is both surprising and disturbing to point out that the percentage of women among those obtaining engineering degrees has fallen over the past five to eight years. In recent years, women obtained 14.5% of the bachelor of science degrees in engineering in the United States, but only 6.8% of the doctorates. The latter leads to a conclusion that even those few women who obtain a bachelor's degree in engineering rarely choose to go on to a more advanced degree. A study done using the statistics of student enrollment in the engineering programs in the College of Engineering at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), shows that, compared to men, women are less likely to enter and to persist in undergraduate engineering programs and less likely to complete a graduate degree. In 1992, a survey designed to try to explain the latter statistics was administered to students in 11 undergraduate engineering classes at UC Davis. Responses to the open-form survey questions and follow-up discussions with female engineering students, engineering faculty, and professional engineers indicated five major reasons women leave or become discouraged with engineering.
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From early childhood, girls tend to be more isolated than boys from the engineering profession; this could be explained by the following:
At the first- and second-year college levels, engineering students are isolated from each other. They are scattered throughout university dormitories and throughout sections of the required basic mathematics, chemistry, and physics classes. Lack of time also contributes to the isolation because, due to their challenging course schedules, the students are often unable to participate in engineering student organizations and form an academic/social network useful for survival in engineering.
In the UC Davis survey, 12% of the women, and only 1% of the men, indicate that isolation was a discouraging factor for them in engineering.
While women, on average, perform well academically in the basic required courses, some have difficulty in relating the theoretical material to the applied problem-solving discipline of engineers. The latter difficulty is compounded because typical examples (e.g., the workings of an automobile or the trajectory of a football) used to make the material relevant are not likely to be drawn from women's prior experience. Because the material in these courses is not readily related to their prior knowledge or to their future goals, many women lose interest and turn to other majors where the relevance is more clear.
Many women feel inadequate and intimidated in the laboratory classes because:
A striking 12% of women, compared to 2% of men, surveyed indicated that laboratory experiences were a significant discouraging factor.
In the UC Davis survey, 30% of women, and only 18% of men, said they were reluctant to ask questions and participate in discussion in classes, one reason being that females are not socialized to be assertive, particularly in large groups and in the presence of males. This tendency is reinforced by the fear, often based on the prior reactions of others, that their questions or comments will be ignored or trivialized.
While 34% of women, versus just 15% of men, stated that other people (e.g., teachers, family, friends) were significant in reinforcing their desire to continue in engineering, it is obvious that there are few female role models on engineering faculties. Therefore, women students do not have access to a large number of faculty who have had similar experiences and whose very presence says "You can do it," as male students do.
All of the factors described above have a negative effect on women's self-image as engineers, as can be concluded from Arnold's 1987 Illinois Valedictorian Project. The project has examined the changes in self-esteem of 80 students, who graduated at the top of their high school classes, through their college years. Although the group continued its high academic performance, a self-estimate of their intelligence relative to that of their peers revealed a shift of self-esteem to lower ratings for the women. While 25% of the men ended college with a self-estimate in the highest category of intelligence, not a single woman would say the same about herself.
The statistics presented provide evidence that productive policies for recruiting and retaining women in engineering are desirable, and necessary, given the barriers present within engineering. The Center for Women in Engineering (WIE) at UC Davis initiated the development, implementation, and evaluation of two faculty workshops to address these issues.
The workshops were entitled "Exploring the Academic Environment for Women in Engineering," and the following objectives were established for them:
A key message offered to faculty members was that becoming sensitive to issues that women face in the classroom enhances the learning environment for all of their students.
The first workshop was held on May 20, 1992. It started off with an introduction, during which the statistics highlighting women's representation in engineering both nationally and at UC Davis were presented. Then the keynote speaker, Professor Jay Mechling of the American Studies Department, presented a review of the last 20 years of research on gender equity in academia, stressing that new models and a depth of awareness about socialized norms will help educators become better teachers for all their students.
The keynote address was followed by the student/alumnae panel, in which several students and alumnae described some of their experiences to faculty members. This component of the workshop was designed to personalize the somewhat abstract workshop issues for participating faculty by highlighting concrete examples within their own institution. A question-and-answer session followed. After the panel session, small-group discussions provided another opportunity for faculty to process the information they had received and develop their own ideas concerning the issues presented. Case studies drawn from a faculty survey were available for the groups to use as starting points for discussion. In the final component of the workshop, ideas generated within the small groups were summarized. To evaluate the workshop, all participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire.
The format of the second workshop, held on March 4, 1993, started off with an introduction similar to the first one. However, the presentation was made by the director of WIE rather than by faculty members, and specific goals for the participants were presented:
There were four explicit guidelines:
In place of a keynote speaker, a series of dramatic sketches, titled "Alphabet Challenge," was presented. The sketches were an interactive demonstration of some of the more common situations that occur in academic settings and were designed to highlight the problems identified as barriers for women in engineering. "Alphabet Challenge" was followed by the student/alumnae panel and the small-group discussion. To ensure that participants left with specific ideas, a booklet entitled "Ideas and Tips for Increasing Gender Equity in Your Teaching" was distributed at the end of the workshop. Several WIE staff members attended the workshop with the specific task of observing the participants and the process in order to provide immediate feedback. The evaluation questionnaire was revised, and participants were asked to complete it at the conclusion of the workshop.
Evaluation of the First Workshop:
The questionnaire which the participants were asked to fill out at the end of the workshop provided the following feedback:
Evaluation of the Second Workshop:
The following feedback was provided by the revised questionnaire:
The goals for the faculty workshops were to foster an environment in which faculty could become more aware of the engineering academic environment and develop concrete steps to improve the situation. Based on staff observation and faculty evaluations, both workshops were successful in providing opportunities for increased understanding of the issues that affect women engineering students. More than 75% of the participants felt they were able to create personal plans of action using concrete tools and ideas received in the second workshop. The second workshop proved to be more appropriate for the UC Davis community than the first, mainly because of the drama sketches, which were highly praised by the faculty.
While workshops for engineering faculty obviously cannot address all barriers to women's full participation in engineering practice, they can make a significant contribution toward changing the overall academic environment that women encounter as they pursue engineering degrees. Workshops such as these may help faculty members recognize the potential factors that are within their immediate control. Moreover, although the workshops were designed to address the issue of a difficult environment for women in engineering, research indicates that teaching techniques that encourage women are also beneficial for men and for minority students of both genders.
--abstract by Online Ethics Center staff.
Original article by Robby Henes, Mary Margaret Bland, Jeannie Darby, and Karen McDonald