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Women in Engineering and Science: Does Anyone Care?

by John A. White

June 1996

This article is reprinted, with permission, from the Proceedings of the Bridging the Gender Gap Conference,
held October 14, 1995, at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA.

Copies of the entire proceedings are available. Contact the office of the Associate Provost for Academic Projects, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. E-mail requests to kj26@andrew.cmu.edu or call 412-268-7970.

Editor’s note: The tables referenced in this article are not included because they are well summarized in the
article. The references are included however, for the reader’s information.


Does anyone care? Quite frankly, it’s not obvious to me that many do. That is one of the big disappointments that I have had. In fact, I have thought about leaving my position as Dean of Engineering at Georgia Tech, but I’ve thought even more about leaving my position as a faculty member in the academy. I am very disappointed in the academy.

At times I wonder: What is wrong with me? Do I just not get it? Why do I seem to be so out of sync with all my colleagues, both male and female? What’s going on? Why don’t I understand? Why don’t I see the world the way everyone else sees it? Why don’t I believe change is necessarily bad? Why don’t I believe being different means being worse? Why do I believe people can be different and equal or even better? Why do I believe that the essential difficulty on this issue is we have been looking through the binoculars from the wrong end?

We have focused too much on pre-college programs for women. We need to pay attention to women faculty. Until this problem is solved, we will never make the kind of progress needed at the undergraduate, the master’s and the doctoral level. We hear all the enrollment and degree statistics. We show the pipeline data. We have been working on this issue for decades and still have made no significant progress. Only three percent of tenured faculty are women, yet we have this great hope that soon there will be more, because 7% of the assistant professors are women. Unless something significant changes, a decade from now it will be the same percentage as today. We all have been in this business long enough to know that the percentage of women full professors should be more than 1%.

The biggest difficulty to over come is that senior women are leaving the profession, both in industry and in academia. Women are giving up on it; they don’t see the point; they are tired. In Sheila Widnall's well known AAAS address, she spoke of the cumulative disadvantage - it is there, it is facing us every day. The essential issue for us is at the professorial level. The rest of it is window-dressing.

This is the most difficult presentation I have ever had to give. I could not decide how I should talk about the issue of bridging the gender gap. Should I talk about it from my perspective as a dean? Or member of he National Science Board? Grandfather of a young granddaughter? Faculty member? Or, should I just talk about it from the viewpoint of a human being who is concerned about what this nation is doing in capital formation, particularly in human capital.


For a long time I did not realize we had a gender problem in engineering. I paid attention to my own career objectives and aachieved all kinds of personal goals. In Industrial Engineering at Georgia Tech, we had lots of women students and I did not think we had a problem. But when I got to NSF and looked at the data on a national perspective, I was absolutely shocked. I did not go to NSF with an agenda of broadening participation of women and minorities in science and engineering. I didn’t choose that agenda; it chose me. I
have found that institutions can make all kinds of statements; hold people accountable; give reduced raises; put it in their performance reviews, but I do not see attitudes changing very quickly.

At Georgia Tech, in 1994, we had a “Year of the Woman Engineer.” I thought I could focus attention on these issues and get the faculty to engage the issue in an objective way, to understand that there’s something going on. We formed focus groups, invited women speakers, and held seminars. And when it came to an end, some people said, “Now we don’t have to worry about it any more.”

Have there been fundamental changes? I don't know, but I hope so. I have the desire to get to 50% participation. When I look around at what other nations are doing, I see that they are more enlightened.
From 1981 to 1994, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in engineering increased, and then decreased. Nationally, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering is about the same now as it was 1981 (Table 1). The numbers get better over a longer time period: we essentially doubled the number of women, as well as doubled the number of African-Americans and Hispanics at the bachelor’s level. That shows progress. For that reason, many conclude we are making progress and are not as concerned as I. My point is that we are not making progress fast enough. Will my granddaughter see the difference? I don't know. It is just so slow.

On the master’s degree level, there is more optimism. Over the last thirteen years the number of master’s degrees doubled for women (Table 2) [in ‘81 1225/17,643 women/total, in ‘94 5131/31943 women to total] and the number of doctoral degrees tripled (Table 3). During that same time period, the number of degrees increased fourfold for African-Americans and doubled for Hispanics (Table 2 and Table 3). That is real progress, but there is still more to be done.

Data on the top ten universities and colleges granting bachelor‘s degrees to women and minorities from the last academic year is not available yet, but the numbers are still small (Table 4) [Georgia Tech, 248 in 1993-’94, the most on the list; 10 on the list is Penn State which granted 153]. At the master’s level (Table 5), less than 200 women and minorities earned degrees at any institution. At the doctoral level (Table 6), the largest numbers at any institution is 27 [no male numbers are given for these degrees]. And at just the graduate level (Table 7) adding both masters and doctorates, only a little more than 200 were granted degrees [at the place which granted the most: Stanford; 10th on that list, Illinois granted 88]. One thing
Georgia Tech and Purdue [top two in B.S. degrees granted to women] do not show is what the percentages are. The data can be manipulated any way to make an institution look good.


There are a number of issues that need to be addressed if we are to bridge the gender gap. One issue is the issue of gender bias. I believe that sexism is a bigger problem on our campuses than racism. And sexism is so subtle. It is not out in the open the way that racist attitudes seem to be. It is insidious.

The group I have the most difficulty convincing that something needs to be done is successful women: successful women who say, “I did it under this system. Why should we do anything that lowers the standards?” I am not talking about lowering standards. In fact, I might be talking about raising standards. I am advocating different standards that can be better standards. During the “Year of the Women Engineer,” I wanted to have a reception honoring all of our women faculty. Some of the women faculty refused to
come. They thought that if I did not have a reception for male faculty, I should not have one for women faculty. Ironically, I was not hosting a reception for them, I was doing it for our women students–to encourage them.

The second issue is promotion and tenure criteria: Too often we try to force all faculty to look alike as far as their resumes are concerned. We need a way to recognize the diversity of contributions and styles. It takes some people longer than others to define their career path. One professor may be an experimentalist, another a theorist; it may take longer for one to get established in his or her field; one may want to do something very daring and not build on the dissertation. Instead of the seven-year tenure process, why don‘t we just say, “We will evaluate you and we will award tenure when we think you deserve it.” Where did seven years come from?

The third issue is the backlash against affirmative action. Just last week an editorial in our student newspaper from a young white male editor, decided to take on this issue. He had just gone to a career fair and was tired of industry only recruiting minority and women students. We must find a way to value diversity.


Some people believe that women are supposed to solve these problems, that this is a women’s issue. When
institutions and departments want to do something for women, they appoint women faculty to do it. Women did not create these problems; why are they supposed to solve them? I do not understand such an attitude.

Last year in our re-appointment process I recommended counseling for several of the young women faculty. One could easily conclude that there was gender bias in what I did, because I was concerned that young women faculty were getting involved in too many committees and support programs. But I knew that if we did not do something, that when it came time for tenure and promotion decisions, they were going to be penalized. Our women faculty have a greater sense of social responsibility. I realize that this is a biased statement, but most of them do, at least at Georgia Tech. They care! They want to get involved in high school programs. They have great difficulty saying “No.” So I encouraged them to say no. I am not interested in having the most women faculty in engineering in the US. I am interested in having the most women full professors in the nation.

Too many universities are ducking the women’s issue, including presidents, deans, department heads, and faculty. Time alone will not take care of this issue. We can not just say, “Let’s just wait. The seven percent of women assistant professors today, will soon become full professors; we’re making progress; it’s just going to be fine.” The time has come, said the walrus, to speak of other things; the time has come to do things differently.


It is said that a definition of insanity is continuing to do the same things and expecting different outcomes. If we want a different outcome, we are going to have to do things differently. We cannot just do more of the same things. We are making too little progress doing more of the same. The time for evolution is past. It is time for revolution. It is time to get tough and put the spotlight on the winners and put the spotlight on the losers. It is time to identify those institutions that are solving the problem and those institutions that are not. The US. News and World Report ranking has caught the attention of everyone. If we had media attention on this issue in the same way we do on other issues, and if the media had included it in their formula
for ranking, amazing changes would occur.

We have to enlist more men. I am delighted to see more men involved but we need a lot more men engaged. I am encouraged with our younger faculty in particular. They seem to have a lot more understanding of the issue. At Georgia Tech, African-American male faculty seem to be more sensitive to these issues. They have identified improving the numbers of women faculty as a critical need and have said that the issue of race does not merit the same attention that must be given to the issue of gender on our campus.

This paper is not for you. It is for me. I am telling me what I need to do. Remember what Churchill said in his address at the Harrow School, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” On this issue I will not give in.

John White is the Eugene C. Gwaltney Professor, and Dean of Engineering in the College of Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology Atlanta, Georgia 30332-0360.

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