By Anastasia Montgomery
Walking into an engineering class on the first day of a semester, I find it amusing to do a quick survey of my class, and without fail I find that only about 1 in 5 people are female. Depending on the class, that proportion can be much worse, as is the case in my computer science class, with roughly 1 in 10 being women. These numbers, in fact, reflect the national average of female STEM majors — the United States has an average of only 18 percent of women receiving bachelor degrees in engineering. Furthermore, there’s an imbalance of pay within the field — statistics show that women in engineering receive 14 percent less pay than their male counterparts in the field. Beyond the classroom proportion issue, there is an issue globally.
To explore other women’s stories about their experiences in the engineering field, I attended a “Women in Engineering: Work/Life Balance” seminar. The keynote speaker, Susan Ottman, the program director of the Engineering Professional Development department, opened up with a brief history of her experience as a woman in engineering and how she quickly learned to manage her time with work and family, and now finds herself in a place where she “has it all.” After her speech, the seminar broke off into smaller groups where I spoke to Laura Arnold, a sales engineer for Schneider Electric, and Deana Turner, a project manager for Findorff. Both are married with children, and working full time in the engineering field. In response to Ottman’s “having it all” comment, Arnold disagreed, saying that it never really works out that way. “There’s always someone who is going to look like they have it better than you,” Arnold says. “But at what cost? The twenties were the power dash, and my thirties saw a change in values. Going home to my kids is honestly amazing, it’s really then when I truly feel like I have it all.”
However, imbalance was very apparent in the field. Continuing the conversation, it was apparent that the men in the engineering field were unprepared for women “invading” the professional territory. Asking the women at the conference about the workplace culture, Turner laughed and said “When I was pregnant, I told my boss I had to take some time off, and he just pulls out a post it note and says, ‘I am going to need to get back to you about that because I don’t think we have a maternity leave policy’ — like it was that new to have women in the field, and men just were not familiar to the roles of a caretaker.”
But a woman’s role in society goes far past the role of a caretaker, and these women should be allowed an equal playing field when building careers in the field of engineering. This is apparently impossible in the real world, however, as women are not paid equally as their male counterparts, according to a study done by the US Department of Commerce in 2011. In this study, it was found that though women held 48 percent of the jobs in the United States, 12 percent were in STEM fields, and within this field, women make 14 percent less than their male counterparts. This wage gap discrepancy could be due to a number of factors, which this study attributed to the different expectations and roles women have in society.
Dr. Jennifer Sheridan, executive & research director of Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI), works to identify and help mitigate the challenges women and minorities face in the academic field at UW-Madison, particularly ones that pertain to the work-life balance struggles and negative stereotyping. WISELI helps hiring committees and departments see through biases and stereotypes by holding seminars and looking through hiring data and surveys from departments to help identify whether a branch is truly allowing for equality. According to Dr. Sheridan, one major obstacle for women and minorities comes from unconscious bias, something people are not aware they are doing. This phenomenon occurs while your brain quickly processes information, and if it doesn’t have the full picture, it will fill in the gaps with information derived from stereotypes and personal experiences. WISELI sets up seminars that explain what unconscious bias is and how to avoid it. For example, to hiring committees, they recommend listing out the specific requirements of the position before interviewing candidates. This has proven to increase diversity in the staff. But women are still being overlooked in engineering positions in industry as well as in the academic field.
For example, when women and minorities enter academia to become an assistant professor, they are typically in their early thirties — about the same time many couples try to start families. “Women get a year extension for their tenure for maternity leave, it’s not even up for discussion at this point,” says Sheridan. “But I have received surveys back from women telling me they were uncomfortable taking this time for fear of not being considered dedicated enough to the program.” WISELI helps women and minorities with this balance between work and life in other ways by providing grants for people (with a skew towards women and minorities, though men can apply for these grants too) who are struck with personal tragedy. For example, the first person to receive a grant from WISELI was an assistant professor whose child developed leukemia. Her time was divided between being in the hospital supporting her child and in the lab trying to catch up with all of the tenure work. The grant allowed her to hire a technician to run the lab while she was away, allowing her to get tenure.
Although these uphill battles are all too common for women in engineering, all is not lost. Arnold notes that the entry of women into STEM fields and their demands for work-life balance is causing a “boomerang effect” among men: “Men are asking me for time off to pick up their kids, and they’re agreeing to lower paying jobs from their previous ones so that they can stay in a great city like Madison and not travel so much. There’s obviously a shift from the men of the generation who hired me, to the men asking for time for their kids today.” With this mindset change, there will be a call to actualize change. Turner also noted the change in younger generations, saying “Honestly, I think it’s the mothers who raised them — their mothers worked hard and kept them in check, and now they’re respecting their wives’ professional lives.” All jokes aside, this idea brings Dr. Sheridan’s unconscious bias into play — it shows how years of trained behavior to see through negative stereotypes can change the way respect is shown in society, whether its being hired, paid equally, or simply being appreciated for your work.
Granted, this is anecdotal evidence. There are bigger problems than simply framing a mindset, since we must change the mindset of a whole society for women to start seeing equal results immediately. As equal pay is continually shut down as a “bogus issue” in government legislation, we need to consider what that means to the nation as a whole. If women are continually paid less, will men continue to subconsciously see them as inferior? If a female undergraduate engineering student knows that her work will not be taken as seriously as an equally qualified male engineering undergraduate student, how do we expect women to continue to flood this field? If women are considered “undedicated” and “not serious enough” for attending to family issues after being considered the head of the household, how are we to expect them to stay in the field of engineering? For now, Turner gave this advice to females fending for themselves in a male-dominated field: “You just need to advocate for yourself, because no one else is going to pick up on it. It doesn’t mean you’re needy, it just means everyone is busy with their own work and won’t ask you if you’re okay. Who cares what the company thinks? Stay happy for yourself.”