Most of you reading this are guys. (Hopefully this does not come as a surprise, either personally or professionally). Engineering is 93-95 percent male and it’s remained this way, stubbornly, for a long time.
But progress is being made, at least on the awareness front. And even more important, huge strides are being made among university faculty, where, arguably, more women faculty creates a more prominent role model structure for high school girls considering colleges and college majors.
MIT has been wrestling with this issue for more than 20 years. In the 1990s, women represented just 6-8 percent of the faculty in engineering; similar numbers were reported in the science school. They felt marginalized, unrepresented on influential committees and struggled with work-life balance.
MIT administrators took action. What resulted were noted reports (the 1999 report chaired by Professor Nancy Hopkins and Professor Mary Potter which focused on the science department and the 2002 report that focused on the EE department chaired by Professor Lorna Gibson). These reports chronicled the situation and led to significant cultural changes within engineering and science.
This week, as MIT celebrates its 150th anniversary, it’s worth looking at a just-released updated report MIT Report on the Status of Women Faculty in Science and Engineering, 2011.
It shows that
- The percentage of women on the faculties of both schools has nearly doubled in the past decade.
- Engineering now has 62 female faculty (17 percent), compared with 34 (10 percent) in 1992.
- More women have administrative roles
- Marginalization has diminished
- There's a feeling that work-life balance, particularly for younger faculty, is better.
While there are lingering issues to be sure, women faculty have a high affinity for the institution and a positive outlook for the future.
Looking to the future
This is obviously a great report to tout as MIT—one of the world’s premier universities— celebrates 150 years.
But outside of Cambridge, why does this matter? Is the tail wagging the dog? If women comprise 5-7 percent of the engineering population, maybe that’s “just the way it is” biologically, sociologically and otherwise.
I think not, and there’s no better way to find out than to boost the percentage of female faculty and see how this greater prominence influences girls in high school to choose engineering.
I put the question to Professor Barbara Liskov
, who was one of seven school of engineering faculty that drafted the 2011 report.
“There is no doubt that the pipeline plays a role in the number of women faculty. So as more and more young women go into science and engineering, we can expect to see increases in women faculty in engineering as well.
Change the mix
I believe it is also works in reverse. I think young women are more likely to go into science and engineering if they have good role models. So, pre-college girls might very well be encouraged to enter these fields when they see a good representation of women faculty.”
Women and men approach and address problem solving in different, complementary ways. A higher percentage of women in engineering teams might lead to innovation, creativity and time-to-solution that we can’t conceive of today.
Maybe boosting the percentage of women faculty in U.S. schools is the trigger.
We’ll check back in in 10 years to see.