THE BLOG

What's Up With 'Chicks and Science?'

02/23/2015 04:10 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

February 22-28 is National Engineers Week. As we celebrate leaders in the field, we should ask ourselves: how are women doing in the engineering field? Recently, I came across a video in which someone asked a question to a panel of distinguished scientists: "what's up with chicks and science?" America's renowned astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was on the panel, volunteered a response. Instead of giving a direct answer, he pointed out that choosing to become an astrophysicist was the most difficult path for him. People expected a young black man to become an athlete, not a scientist. He also talked about the "forces of nature" that tried to keep him down. He then narrated an incident where he was stopped at a store for stealing while the actual thief, a white male walked away. His response, in a nutshell, explains the status of women in the workforce and in engineering in particular.

First, there is this notion that women are not meant for engineering. Engineering requires spatial visualization and hands-on skills that women are simply not good at. 'Forces of nature' will keep females down by perpetuating these myths. These myths are so powerful that even women start buying in to them. The percentage of Bachelor's degrees awarded to women in engineering disciplines have been around 18 percent since 2010. Despite all the efforts to attract more women into engineering, the numbers are actually 2 percent lower from 20 percent in 2002.

Second, if women make it in to technical fields, they will find it difficult to work. Worse, they could be blamed for anything that goes wrong in the workplace. Nicholas Kristof, in his New York Times column, Straight Talk for White Men, alludes to the 14 million reviews on RatemyProfessor.com in which male professors are likely to be described as a "star" or genius." Take a look at the interactive visualization map of gendered language of teacher reviews created by Professor Benjamin Schmidt of the Northeastern University. Type any word such as "knowledgeable" or "smart." Across all disciplines from music to engineering, men are smarter and funnier. In engineering, this disparity is over 50 percent in pretty much all areas, despite only 14 percent of faculty in engineering are women. There are no "star" female professors in engineering. Frighteningly, the only words that I were able to find that put female professors ahead of their male counterparts are "bossy," "beautiful" and "ugly." I encourage you to try this out yourself, the results speak for themselves.

Can we really live in a society where students themselves feel that they do not have "smart," "knowledgeable," "funny" female engineering professors? Should we believe the field is limited to "bossy, "beautiful," and don't forget, "ugly" instructors?

Gender bias is real and it is worse in engineering. Even engineering students rate average female professors more harshly than an average male professor. I have a personal experience with this. Several years ago, when I was a new Assistant Professor at an institution, the department hired a female faculty member. She was knowledgeable and pleasant to work with. However, her teaching skills weren't extraordinary. She was an average teacher like most of the other (male) faculty. There were a few outstanding professors (which, of course, included me!), but most of them were regular, average professors. However, a women in engineering was subjected to a higher level of scrutiny that no other male faculty experienced. It was interesting to listen to the average male professors criticize this women who was as good (or better) than them. Ultimately, the atmosphere became so unbearable for her and she was forced to leave the institution. I don't know what happened to her since then, but I do know that it is undeniable that she was subjected to different standards by the students, administration and her own peers.

Women are under constant scrutiny, and in order to thrive (or even simply survive) in the work place they must outperform their male counterparts. Recently, Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg wrote a column about women, "Madam C.E.O., Get Me a Coffee," in the New York Times. This article discussed how women in fairly high positons are expected to do "Office House Work" and how bad it looks for them if they refuse.

I find that the "office house work" mindset starts very early, and can be illustrated in the classroom setting. I teach engineering students. Cal Poly Pomona is a hands-on school and our students are involved in many team projects. One thing, I consistently notice is that if there is a woman on a team, male members invariably assign all presentation preparation, report writing, etc. to the female members of the team. That seems to work out fairly well for the team because girls often do a great job in organizing things and getting the job done. The implicit assumption is that men will do all the "important" work and girls, even though they are equally qualified, are expected to take care of the "School House Work."Unfortunately, women are such a minority in engineering and they do not want to say no.

During this National Engineering Week, let us acknowledge the gender bias in engineering. Despite all the odds against them, from Ada Lovelace in 1842, who is considered to have written the first computer program, to Marissa Mayer, the first female engineer at Google, women play a significant and empowering role in the development of technology.