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June 12, 2006

Engineering education should welcome women, professional society leader says

By David Orenstein

There's plenty of engineering talent among women, but so too are there barriers to projecting it in a male-dominated culture, said Betty Shanahan, chief executive officer of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), in a May 30 lecture before more than 100 Stanford engineering faculty, students and staff. Her talk, given at the invitation of Dean James D. Plummer, was meant to help the school break down barriers that have traditionally excluded women from engineering.

U.S. Department of Education statistics show that women earned only 19 percent of the nation's graduate and undergraduate engineering degrees in 2002-03, the most recent school year for which statistics are available. At Stanford the proportion was higher (31 percent) but obviously well below the female share of the U.S. population.

Rather than trying to "fix" women to act more like men, professors and employers should strive to create environments that are more inclusive of women, who generally have a different—but effective—working style, Shanahan said. "Our goal is not to turn women into a group of white men in high heels," she said. Doing so robs organizations of the competitive advantage that diverse perspectives bring and makes women feel uncomfortable and inauthentic in their professional roles.

Engineering as a profession has long been dominated by white males, according to the National Science Foundation. The science and engineering workforce in 2000 was only 24.7 percent female, 6.9 percent black and 3.2 percent Hispanic.

Ultimately, Shanahan said, the challenge of recruiting, retaining and recognizing women in engineering is in creating welcoming environments that benefit from the value of diversity. In the meantime, women can learn approaches to enhance their effectiveness, she said.

Psychology vs. reality

Shanahan, an electrical engineer for more than 20 years, used a rich set of research and data to support her point that women face social rather than innate barriers to engineering achievement. To demonstrate the messages that undermine a female student's self-confidence, for example, she cited research by Professor Jacquelynne Eccles at the University of Michigan showing that young women are less likely to think highly of their math and science abilities than young men, even though they typically have similar—and sometimes higher—grades in those subjects. Eccles also has found that parents cite hard work as important in explaining their daughters' math grades, but note that talent and hard work are the source of success for their sons.

"The messages so many women carry in the back of their minds—be they high school girls making a career choice, college students sitting in a classroom or women in industry—are not that we're good at this but that we worked hard at this," Shanahan says. "That's where [we believe] our success comes from."

The effect such thinking can have is evident in studies of how female students perceive exams. In a study published last year, psychologists found that women scored significantly lower than men on an exercise presented as a test of "math ability," but scored a little higher than men when the same exercise was called a test of "problem solving."

Although women can be as assertive and competitive as their male counterparts, differences in approaches and communications are often a barrier to women's success in a male-dominated environment, Shanahan says. For example, men tend to grab the floor in a discussion where most women expect to share it. Women tend not to ask for resources if they are not offered them. As a result, many women are reluctant to visit a professor during office hours or to push an employer for the resources to complete a project.

Finally, Shanahan observed, women (and "Generation Y" students of both genders) are more motivated by the applications of engineering than by its tools and methods. "Engineering is not about math and science," Shanahan said. "It's about using those disciplines and tools to innovate, to design, to create and to solve problems."

What can be done

Engineering professors can make several changes in their classes and labs to help women join and thrive in the profession, Shanahan said.

Professors should explicitly encourage female students to attend office hours. They also should avoid assuming that all students tinker avidly (girls often aren't encouraged to do so). Shanahan recalled sometimes feeling lost in an electrical engineering class where the professor constantly made reference to building stereos, a hobby more popular among her male colleagues.

Shanahan asserted that professors should never lower academic standards for women. Instead, she said, they should offer more confidence-building assurance that students can meet high standards. Framing learning as an incremental process of building skills, she said, is less likely to reinforce the message that female students' success is based primarily on hard work. Women will generally feel more at home in a classroom setting that emphasizes teamwork over competition.

With some re-engineering of engineering education to make it more inclusive, professors could have a huge effect in reducing the gender gap in the field, Shanahan said. "What's really going to make a difference in diversity in engineering are going to be the academic institutions that create engineers and the industry that employs them," she said.

David Orenstein is the communications and public relations manager in the Stanford School of Engineering.

Editor Note:

A photo of Shanahan is available online at A video of Shanahan's full talk is available on the web at Registration is required but is free.



David Orenstein, School of Engineering: (650) 736-2245,

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