Monday, November 12, 2012

Women engineers don't stay in academia. Why should we care?

One important issue beyond the problem of retaining female students in engineering  that AWE is designed to combat, is that of keeping women engineers and scientists engaged in teaching and research once they exit the academic pipeline.  At a Penn Society of Women Engineers lecture I attended at Penn last spring, one senior professor commented that despite the fact that the graduate students body in her program is usually more than 50% female, far more male students were taking academic positions, or staying in engineering at all.  What's more, she lamented, though her department had made sustained and targeted efforts to recruit female faculty, national searches for female candidates often came up empty.  The alumni choosing academia gender balance is even less favorable in disciplines like electrical engineering and physics, which have tremendous difficulty attracting female students, much less encouraging graduate students to stay in the "tower.

Why women aren't applying for academic jobs -- popular theories are that women disproportionately shoulder family responsibilities, are less willing to endure the 6+ years of relatively low pay and labor needed to win tenure, and are less open to relocate to far-flung labs and universities as they get older -- is a complex question beyond the scope of this post.  A more immediate question is why we should care that women aren't even applying to positions in academia, especially if they are interested enough to earn an engineering degree in the first place?  Two big reasons come to mind.

 Anecdotally speaking, sometimes all it takes is the presence of one female faculty member in a program to encourage women to tackle a graduate degree or an undergraduate thesis, which in turn helps achieve a self-sustaining critical mass of female students through generations of class cohorts.  In one specific sub-field of physics, every tenure-track female faculty member teaching that discipline at any US university is a doctoral or postdoctoral alumna of the same graduate group at Stanford, which is helmed by a woman.  I doubt it's coincidence.  Whatever fear or disinclination is keeping women from technical PhDs seems to be assuaged by giving them female mentors and role models.  Therefore, a woman who graduates from a gender-balanced program at Penn who takes an academic position at a more malignant program could make a real difference in chipping away at the imbalance at another university.

Having women on the faculty could enhance the overall faculty experience as well.  There is a body of research on the benefits workplace diversity that suggests a diverse workplace is often happier, more productive, and better equipped to solve collective problems.  In most universities, the science and engineering faculties are hotbeds of collaborative activity, as professors' expertise is non-overlapping and funding agencies are more likely to fund grants written by multiple professors.  The composition of the faculty clearly has broad ramifications.  Introducing female faculty to male-dominated environments , and enriching departments with the voices of women and other minorities, could have palpable effects on the faculty experience, which inevitably trickles down to students.

Whether you're a science or engineering graduate student, an undergraduate, or high school student flirting with the idea of one day doing science or engineering for a living, the presence or absence of women academics in your midst will likely affect you in some way.  Possibly subconsciously.  How having women around is important, and why we as women are less likely to want to make a living teaching or researching what we are devoting years of our lives to studying, are questions worth keeping in the back of our minds of about as we go about our academic lives.

Shaudi is a PhD candidate in Electrical and Systems Engineering.  Questions for Shaudi?  e-mail her at

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