Making It through the Maze

By Lord, Mary | ASEE Prism, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Making It through the Maze


Lord, Mary, ASEE Prism


WOMEN FIND THEMSELVES GOING AROUND A LOT OF BLIND CORNERS WHEN IT COMES TO TENURE. FAMILY RESPONSIBILITIES ARE OFTEN HELD AGAINST THEM.

Women in engineering are less likely than men to get tenure, and having children makes it even more difficult, according to a recent National Science Foundation (NSF) study. "Our results say that if you're a male and you're married and have children, it doesn't hurt your career. If you're a woman, it does," says Jerome T. Bentley, lead author of the report and chair of the economics department at Rider University in New Jersey.

The report shows that for those with 14 to 15 years of postdoctoral experience, women in science and engineering are almost 14 percent less likely than men to become a full professor. Not only does being married hurt a woman's chances of getting tenure, women with children over the age of 6 are at a greater disadvantage. Upward mobility is particularly difficult for women at prestigious research institutions. At four-year colleges and universities, only 15 percent of female science and engineering educators are full professors, compared with 44 percent of men. At Harvard, for example, the number of women obtaining tenure in all fields declined three years in a row after Lawrence Summers assumed the presidency. Only after enraging women with remarks about female scientists and engineers did Summers pledge $50 million to support the kinds of programs that he once suggested would have little impact.

There are many subtle ways that women are discriminated against in their struggle for tenure. One female faculty member was stunned when male colleagues arranged to have predinner drinks with an NSF grantor and didn't think to include her. Another walked in on a male peer reeling off her research findings at a professional meeting with no hint of attribution. Then there was the search committee member who asked a young chemical engineer if she understood that tenure hinged on scholarship. "I was wondering if he'd seen my résumé because I was on my fourth research lab," recalls Sheryl Ehrman, who headed instead for the University of Maryland, where she recently received tenure.

It's not as if women lack the credentials. They earned 17.4 percent of the engineering doctoral degrees in 2003 and accounted for nearly a third of the Ph.D.s awarded in such disciplines as biomedical and environmental engineering. But even traditionally male-dominated disciplines like business and medicine boast better track records. One reason other professional schools do better, says Mara H. Wasburn, assistant professor of organizational leadership at Purdue University's College of Technology, is that "they've got some parity there. The students look around and say 'Wow, there are people like me here.'"

A number of factors underlie this persistent gender gap, say scholars who have examined the phenomenon. Some are cultural. Comfort levels play a role as well; studies show that people mentor and promote those who are most like themselves, which in engineering means white males. Some campuses are making inroads. But fundamentally, the problem boils down to low numbers, inadequate mentoring and support systems and the cumulative drag of dealing with lots of small but emotionally draining issues.

TRAPPED INTO SERVICE

WOMEN often overload on outreach and other service activities, and that can be a "trap," says Lori Mann Bruce, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Mississippi State University. "There usually are very good intentions by colleges and department heads to have women representatives on committees and doing outreach, but when you're the only one in the department, you end up doing much more." She should know. As a young tenure-track professor, she says she felt as if she "couldn't say no" and wound up spending every Saturday on some activity-putting in 10 times the hours her male colleagues did. "I wanted to be a team player," recalls Bruce, who served on every search committee and still does.

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