Monday, May 07, 2007

Women's Insight In Engineering

I was interested to see an advertised tenure-track position for an engineering professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL). The position is open to any field of engineering, but is restricted to women. The purpose is of course to increase the number of women engineering professors at EPFL in particular and Switzerland in general.

This seems like an extreme measure, and I'm curious as to whether less extreme mechanisms for hiring women were first tried: e.g., having women participate in hiring committees and ensuring that talented women applicants for open positions are given full consideration.

The position involves an endowed professorship, and therefore it may come with some status, but I also wonder how a woman hired for a position that specifies it is for a woman engineer will be viewed by her colleagues. Presumably a talented woman will be hired and will be respected as much as any faculty member (??).

Some of my engineering colleagues, some of whom have spent sabbaticals in Switzerland, think that the weirdest part of the ad is the part that says that the position is intended "to promote women's insight in engineering". My colleagues and I were joking about this -- wondering if it meant that the woman is supposed to bring a 'feminine touch' to her engineering research. Then we wondered what 'women's insight in physics' or 'women's insight in chemistry' might be like.


theverycold said...

Hmm, insight by force. yes, because that will just scream "we're not a foggy prudey sort of university! we got women on staff! see, lookee!"

blop said...

maybe you should not underestimate translation approximations.
Indeed the press release seems less ambiguous

"EPFL announces a one-of-a-kind job opening : an endowed assistant tenure-track professorship destined for an outstanding woman in any field of engineering. The professorship, sponsored by swissUp, a foundation promoting higher education in Switzerland, is part of an effort to enhance the engineering contributions and increase the participation of women in engineering. The project is supported by EPFL's group of women professors, who will take an active role in the selection process."

blop said...

In the extended french press release:
" La proportion d'étudiantes a augmenté de 16 à 24% entre 2000 et 2006. Quant au nombre de femmes professeures, il a passé de 4 à 19 sur la même période."
rough tranlation:
"Between 2000 and 2006, the proportion of female [engineering] students increased from 16 to 24% while the number of female professors went from 4 to 19 during the same period."

Feminista said...

its so wonderful to see, hear, visualise a woman involved in might like to view our great collection of scientists and technologists from nz who we worked with on a 13 part science series called QTV, Question Everything! in nZ. see (free to educators) and which will soon be made available for download was for TV, but now will be digicast to all nz schools. we'd love to see it all over the world so make contact! go girl/women scientists....

clare o'leary

pluto said...

> wondering if the woman is supposed to bring a 'feminine touch' to her engineering research.

Yeah, well she'll be so in touch with the phases of the moon -- it'd be silly of her not to use that.

Anonymous said...

There's something to say for both stances I guess. Positive discrimination might help boost the numbers of female scientists, but at what cost?
Why is it that so few women have a scientific career? At our university, a questionnaire revealed that it was -- as always -- the combination of married life with children and the fact that PhD's are generally written during the child bearing age . Nothing can be done about that, I assume.
And that remark about advancing women insight into engineering? What IS that? I'll be laughing about that all day. Thanks!


Anonymous said...

Silly as it sounds, there is a body of "scholarship" that promotes the idea that women have special insight into science. One sees this particularly in the biological sciences, with such books as E.F. Keller's "A Feeling for the Organism", and other less publicized works. Keller argues that brining women into science is essential because women view the biological world differently than do men. It has nothing to do with such practical trivialities as pay equity, parental leave policies or on-campus day care, no. It's all about whether the nucleus (read: hierarchical, centralized, male) or the cytoplasm (read: vast integrated networks of equally essential components, harmoniously functioning to keep the cell in balance with its environment, female) is the dominant focus of cell biology. As a woman and a cell biologist, I find this rather silly. The nucleus/cytoplasm dichotomy is not anything like those sociologists make it out to be. The traditional lines between subdisciplines are blurring, and not necessarily along gender lines.

Besides, I'd rather have a daycare on campus that fight about studff like that.

plam said...

Perhaps something that's a bit more normal is the University Faculty Awards by NSERC, Canada's natural science and engineering funding agency. If you get one, NSERC pays $40k towards your salary. It is open to female and Aboriginal faculty members.

lost academic said...

Do you think it's possible that insight is a poorly translated word? What are possible other translations?

I find it strange as you do, but really more because it seems they've created separate hiring tracks for men and women. We decided awhile back in this country that 'separate but equal' is anything but.

Female Science Professor said...

I should have noted that the phrase involving women's "insight" was in English.

scholar henry said...

Literature on "Insight" expresses that insight lies in the manner of how we transform our view of a problem as the path to solving a problem.

The nut is not feminine insights vs or as different than masculine insights. The core of the concern is where does a person start the transformation of patterns to solve a problem. Perhaps men start from a reductivist perspective and women start from systems perspective.

The NHLBI's WHI, is an example in which women looked at their postmenopausal health as a systemic concern requiring a systems view as men had looked at PM health as a chemical imbalance problem. This is perhaps to narrow a view but I hope it illustrates the point.

Lisa said...

"At our university, a questionnaire revealed that it was -- as always -- the combination of married life with children and the fact that PhD's are generally written during the child bearing age ."
I'm not sure how one questionnaire can "reveal" why there are so few women with a scientific career. Presumably many of the women who could've had a scientific career were not in science at the university to answer the survey; perhaps they had chosen a different field because of our culture's gender issues, or perhaps they had "leaked" out of the pipeline for various reasons already. I am even less sure how it could show that childbearing is "as always" the reason, since other studies have shown that this is not the only reason. There's a paper called "Do Babies Matter" that showed that the women who were married with children had pretty much the same probability of getting tenure as other women, provided they were on the tenure track. It seemed, though, that fewer women with children were choosing to take (or being offered) a tenure-track job.

Susan B. Anthony said...

The Luce Foundation here in the States endows similar positions, called Clare Boothe Luce Professorships. I applied for one in my field last year. I thought briefly about whether it might be uncomfortable to hold a position that had been specified for a woman. But ultaimtely I felt that being part of an institution and department that took the issues of women in science seriously enough to have been awarded the Luce grant outweighed any potential negative assumptions on the part of small-minded individuals. (However, I didn't get the job.)

Anonymous said...

At least they didn't say "intuition."
Once in a grad seminar on logic, the professor was having trouble with a proof. I offered a sketch of how it might be done, and he said, "Interesting intuition." I showed him my notebook where I had worked out the proof while he fumbled on the board.

Susan B. Anthony said...

By the way, did everyone notice that Purdue has picked an FSP for their new president?

Purdue U. Picks Chancellor of U. of California at Riverside as Its Next President

lady macleod said...

I'm thinking we (women) might have something to say on our view of "the big bang"...

I like Pluto's comment.

FE (female engineer) said...

May I use and example from a volunteer relationship with a HS after school technical program designed to introduce students to engineering problems. The students were asked to divide into two teams and build robots with help from undergraduate students. They divided themselves into all boy and girl teams. The boys were talking all about the mechanical aspects of the robot right away in their group. The girls first gave the robot a face, a personality so to speak, and then started mechanical. Their mechanical ideas were just as good (if not better) than the boy's, but I found it interesting they had to give the project a 'personality' first. Many of the biological sciences have 'faces' if you will, but engineering does not always have this concept and may be less attractive to the female student. Perhaps a unique view-point is what they are inferring in using the word insight. BTW, even in this country engineering has long been trying to attract females into the mix, as was stated by the French statistics. In fact one of the major selling points of an engineering school in higher education is their percentage of female students. While I understand your point that it may not be necessary to ask specifically for a women in a job description, perhaps women are so discouraged from tenure-track positions in Switzerland they need this specified.

Flicka Mawa said...

If it were me going for this position, I'd be excited that it sounds like there's a network of women who support the opening, but quite worried about anyone thinking that I had gotten the job by being female and not by being a great scientist. But I'm sure that the position, particularly without looking for a specific field of research within engineering, will attract so many qualified candidates that the one who gets the position will, for the most part, be respected by her peers.

To Bel, I second some of Lisa's arguments, and also add that it is most certainly not true that "nothing can be done about that." In addition to half-time tenure track, having reasonable child care at universities, etc...people can work to change the attitude/stigma that surrounds so many working women with children, where no matter how much work they produce, they are judged more critically. In fact, this has recently begun to gain some recognition by the law as Family Responsibilities Discrimination. (See Scaling the Maternal Wall in Ms.)

Life Lore said...

Feminine touch to!

Anonymous said...

I do think that women, in general, have a different insight into problem and that a science, a search for truth, is well served by the diversity of insights that come from gender and cultural background. A good example was pointed out recently in popular science journals. Ideas on human evolution may have been influenced by a male-dominated scientific community. To simplify, brain development was considered the result of Man turning into a killer of large predators, but recent research is showing that in fact, brain evolution may have been the result of getting smart in order to avoid or trick large predators, and not to kill them. An argument was made in the journals that had female scientists been better represented, this misinterpretation of data may have been avoided.
So I do believe the EPFL, after careful deliberation, indeed meant women's insight in engineering.

Anonymous said...


I'm sorry, I clearly did not word my comment correctly. The questionnaire was directed at men and women who had started their PhD research a couple of years before. The questionnaire revealed that fewer women then men, proportionally, finished the PhD track and that of those who did, a significant amount left the world of research after getting their doctoral degree, whereas a much larger part of the men did continue with their scientific career. The reasons stated amongst others (of course there were other reasons too) were family oriented.
I would be as surprized as you are if women who choose the path of a scientific career are less probable of getting tenure because of their choice to have a family by definition. But apparently, there is still a lot of ground to cover when it comes to this apparent gap between men and women when it comes to choosing that career. Why do women who have finished their PhDs feel the necessity of stopping their career? As in: why do THEY choose to do so, and men do not?

Mr. B. said...

A few comments from Mr. B. in his anecdotage...

One of the last times I taught my biomaterials course (a course in the biomedical ENGINEERING deparment) I noticed for the first time in my career of teaching science/engineering courses that the women outnumbered the men...

When I taught at Katyland in the seventies - a large Catholic women's college - the last year I was there we had ten chemistry majors who were as strong, top to bottom, as the students at Carleton. And by the way, the female students at Carleton were fantasic and there never seemed to be any worries about their ability to compete in science.

And finally, I think this business about women and math is cultural. Mr. B. has had some very sharp female students - mathwise - work in his lab who learned math initially in the Ukraine, Poland, and India. There apparently "everyone does math." I am afraid that in the US the idea that math is hard and women can't do it has been drilled into our heads for many, many, years.

Just some thoughts.


FFE said...

I would be concerned about the respect the person who gets this position will get from her colleagues. I have wondered if I got into the well-respected university where I got my BSE in part because I was a woman interested in engineering. I don't think anyone treated women in the program differently because of this, but it may be more obvious in a situation like this.

I am also one of the statistics of a woman who went to grad school in engineering and then left academia. It wasn't because of work-family balance or wanting to have kids, though. I've seen people balance those, although it is certainly difficult. I think there are a lot of reasons women leave engineering more. Girls who show promise are strongly encouraged to try it, even if that is not their interest. I have recently changed fields and am halfway (hopefully!) through a PhD program in a different area. If I'd explored my options more in college, I might have gotten here a lot sooner. (Perhaps not, because I think it's really hard to find the right field when you have no experience in the "real world" but that's another story...) This happens for boys, too, but I think boys who show promise aren't pushed in quite the same ways.

One more tangential thing to mention is that the only thing that made me feel bad about leaving engineering is that now there's one less woman there to be welcoming to the next generation. I've heard the same thing from other women who have left. I usually was able to ignore it, but every once in a while it became obvious that I was the only woman in a room of 10 engineers. But to be unhappy there isn't being a good role model either...

I'm glad that people are trying to help promising women succeed, and if these kinds of searches are necessary, it's good to do. It is a bit depressing, however, that they feel it is necessary in the 21st century!

ffe (former female engineer. Still female, but not an engineer.)

Sophie Claire said...

About engineering --

_Female Scientists and Engineers: Why So Few?_ was an NSF-funded study performed in the early 90s. It was intended to be followed by a later study. Never happened.

From what I've seen elsewhere, numbers of employed female engineers are down -- much lower than would be predicted by graduation rates.

I studied engineering because I absolutely loved the problem solving, am decently good at it, and had some very nice friends (generally male but also some female) who shared the same interests. And because my science and math professors encouraged me strongly to pursue engineering.

The problem solving is still attractive to me -- the field, definitely not.

School was really horrid. The work environment was a slight improvement. At my first job post-graduation, I was the only woman in a room of 27 engineers. Also the youngest, the new kid, and the subject matter expert for my area.

Professional respect and acceptance -- those are things I feel I did achieve, to the extent that women ever achieve such things in engineering. I keep in touch with several former colleagues.

But there was very little opportunity for advancement, and a very ugly competitiveness just as what I had encountered in school. Although my work was needed and often applied, there were persistently enormous differences between my work responsibilities versus stated authority. For example, I was frequently (at three successive companies) given responsibilities which exceeded my positional status by up to three grades. This represents not only a serious degree of under-compensation for me, but also was quite a hindrance to my ability to do the work I was assigned to do -- unnecessarily inefficient for my employer.

Scott Adams (Dilbert creator) is spot-on with his Alice character: in my experience, women engineers are too often given disproportionate levels of work, are saddled with social responsibilities such as keeping teams working well together and cheerleading, are regularly assigned social and administrative tasks, are held responsible for the social and personal behavior of others including their superiors, and receive less recognition, credit, and compensation for comparable work.

I've discovered that I truly don't care to break new ground. I regret my pursuit of an engineering career. I would rather have applied my talents where they would be useful to others and to my family.

As for my daughter -- I'm encouraging her to pursue research or clinical work in the allied health sciences, particularly if she can negotiate one of the fields which offers family-friendly flexibility.

My sister-in-law is a nurse. Nursing isn't the most optimal use of her considerable intellectual talents (no offense to nurses -- school can be very challenging, but after all, the work typically tends to become relatively routine), but it's otherwise truly wonderful for her, as she has the satisfaction of making a valuable, direct impact in the lives of others -- a refreshing degree of flexibility (working 38 hours/week spread over two days), and a comfortable income (more than most experienced engineers earn).

Frankly, I'm envious! And admiring -- she's found a great career which allows her to support her family and spend time with her child, where she is appreciated, valued, and promoted.

As an engineer and project manager, I worked countless 12+ hour days (and many 20 hour days), and I typically worked 6- and 7-day weeks. Compared to my SIL the nurse, I also earned far less, experienced far greater headaches, and had very little real flexibility. (Flexibility to come and go when I deemed necessary -- but so much work that it wasn't practical to do much other than work. I rarely saw my family.)

Forget engineering! It doesn't work for women because it truly doesn't want to.

I frequently run into female graduates of my engineering school -- we're just not working as engineers.

Ms.PhD said...

I'm with fe, who wrote: "perhaps women are so discouraged from tenure-track positions in Switzerland they need this specified."

And with anonymous (and others) who discussed the value of diversity.

This is what affirmative action is for, people. Let's not put it down, because it works.

Female Science Professor said...

I didn't put anything down, just mused.

CJK said...

This is also why there are so many mixed feelings about affirmative action, especially among the minority group "beneficiaries." The process does cast doubt on how someone got their job in the first place, even if it the position was awarded to the best candidate from the *entire* pool of applicants, rather than a limited pool of women, or blacks or whatever. There is also a whiff of a suggestion that the minority group in question, in this case women, couldn't get the job if they weren't getting a leg up from "the man." Affirmitive action is an extreme policy designed to right grotesque wrongs, but it seems to have become standard operating procedure.

Zuska said...

Well, the oppressor sure has gotten inside the heads of a lot of people. Here's something to consider: those who would question the credentials of a woman who would get this job in Switzerland are the same folks who would question the credentials of ANY woman who gets ANY job in science or engineering. There is NOTHING you can do to prove to those people that you are legitimate. They just don't think women are good enough, period. They think letting women in the door at all means "lowering standards". Why are we so frickin' worried about one job reserved for a woman when we know that most of the rest of them are reserved for men? So, she gets the job, and some people behind her back question whether she deserves it. So what? That's still one more woman on the faculty than there was before. You think that the rest of you aren't having your quality and "deservedness" questioned by men around you behind your back? In engineering, women are always being told "you just got in here because you're a girl" or "they only hired you because you're a woman". That's without any special positions created. Screw 'em. Let's not do their job for them and police ourselves. If we have managed to wrest one f*cking position out of the hands of powers that be, let's celebrate it, not wring our hands and worry whether some asshat guys will think we don't deserve it. If we wait for them to be convinced, we might as well wait for pigs to fly, too.

Regarding the insight bit: I don't think there is anything _inherent_ in women that makes them do engineering differently from men; that is, there is no biological basis for women doing engineering one way and men doing it another way. However, a person brings to engineering a set of life experiences that colors the way he or she looks at a problem and considers an approach to design a solution. Or even what the person considers IS a problem that needs addressed. Different people have different kinds of life experiences. The way our society is set up right now, men and women ON AVERAGE have very different sorts of life experiences and therefore are likely to bring very different sorts of insights to the identification of problems and design of their solutions.

This isn't just me talking. William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering (I think a new president has just been elected, but he's been president for the last several years)has made exactly this point in numerous speeches over the years. Here's one place where you can read his take on it: