Complementing this issue’s analysis of the past 20 years of literature reviews, SWE Magazine spoke with some of the researchers whose work has been cited over the years.
By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor
What does social science research tell us about the persistent underrepresentation of women in engineering? How much is understood about women’s experiences in engineering education, to obtaining undergraduate and graduate degrees, and in the workplace?
In an effort to find out, in 2001 SWE Magazine started its annual review of the research literature on women in engineering, and more broadly, the STEM professions. For the past 20 years, the literature review authors have examined peer-reviewed articles in academic journals from a variety of social science disciplines, publishing an analysis of each year’s most interesting or insightful work, and providing an extensive bibliography that averaged more than 200 individual works.
With two decades of reviews behind us, this year SWE Magazine is providing a retrospective analysis of those reviews. In keeping with this examination, below are profiles of some of the researchers whose works have been cited over the years. It’s worth noting that trends and interests change over time, as do areas of consensus and differences among researchers and research findings.
We need a cultural mindset shift to become more inclusive. We need to recognize what that takes, how we get there, and what does that look like in a granular way — and put policies in place so the right information is there when decisions like hiring and promotions are made.”
– Diana Bilimoria, Ph.D., KeyBank professor and chair of organizational behavior, Case Western Reserve University
DIANA BILIMORIA, PH.D.
Diana Bilimoria, Ph.D., has, in her words, enabled, equipped, empowered, and encouraged people, teams, organizations, and institutions to become aware of and remedy patterns of inequities that constrain women’s opportunities.
“Decision-makers can make choices informed by a diversity perspective to include people from different genders, ethnicities, cultures, and other aspects,” said Dr. Bilimoria, the KeyBank professor and chair of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
She’s been at it for three decades.
Her efforts have resulted in measurable results, about which she has published extensively.
She said her aim has always been to provide tools so that people “see how they can become more inclusive in bringing in diverse talent and employing that talent to drive their organization forward.”
Dr. Bilimoria started by examining women’s roles on corporate boards of directors as part of her Ph.D. dissertation and found that company boards’ most powerful committees — executive, audit, and compensation committees, for example — were exclusively male. Women were relegated to less-powerful committees such as public relations and community affairs.
“Even at this highest level, where board members are extremely well qualified, well educated, and well experienced, women faced subtle discrimination,” said Dr. Bilimoria, whose work was published in top academic journals as she embarked on her career.
Now, the average number of female corporate directors stands at 3.4 out of an average board size of 11.1, according to a Bloomberg analysis of the S&P 500 companies. The increase for Black women in 2021 was twice the rate for women overall, but Black women hold only 4% of S&P 500 board seats, the data show.
Dr. Bilimoria supports efforts to set goals for equity, diversity, inclusion, and leadership. “Goal setting is very important at every level — individual, team, and collective,” she said.
She next tackled academia by helping write a National Science Foundation ADVANCE institutional transformation grant, aimed at increasing women’s representation and advancement in academic science and engineering careers at Case Western.
Her work, starting in 2003, along with colleagues, made them pioneers in bringing into academia initiatives such as executive coaching, mentoring, and systemic leadership development for women faculty and institutional leaders.
“Our experiment was to bring effective practices in business and industry into the academic world,” Dr. Bilimoria said.
Inspired to Study Human Behavior
Diana Bilimoria, Ph.D., followed her father and her brother into the world of accounting and finance, but it was her later experience in the hotel industry that led her to study human behavior.
She earned her undergraduate degree in accounting and finance where she grew up — in Mumbai, India — and obtained the equivalent of an MBA focused on human resource management.
That’s when she started working in human resources, training, development, planning, and strategy.
“I found HR to be more interesting,” said Dr. Bilimoria, who came to the United States to earn her Ph.D. in business administration from the University of Michigan. “I still love doing my own accounting. But [HR] was a more appealing and attractive area. You had to work with people [to] solve real issues and real problems. There were consequences to everything.”
Her work led to other grants and eventually a book, Gender Equity in Science and Engineering: Advancing Change in Higher Education (2015), co-authored with Xiangfen Liang, Ph.D.
The research revealed that women’s issues aren’t monolithic because certain groups — such as women of color and people who identify as
LGBTQA+ — experienced greater marginalization.
Together with Lynn T. Singer, Ph.D., Distinguished University Professor at Case Western Reserve University, Dr. Bilimoria led two subsequent NSF ADVANCE projects: the 2009–2012 IDEAL program that brought together six research universities to address issues of gender, diversity, inclusion, and equity, and the 2015–2019 IDEAL-N program that included 10 research universities.
Dr. Bilimoria also served as the research director of a multi-university NSF Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate project to advance underrepresented doctoral students to the STEM professoriate.
And her research, along with Abigail J. Stewart, Ph.D., in “‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’: The Academic Climate for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Faculty in Science and Engineering” (2009) revealed that LGBT faculty members experienced LGBT identity-based invisibility, rejection, pressure, and isolation in many science and engineering departments. Dr. Stewart is the Sandra Schwartz Tangri Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan.
“A more inclusive work environment — one in which LGBT faculty felt accepted as whole persons — would not only be more humane, but might also facilitate enhanced scientific productivity from these faculty and their colleagues,” the research concluded.
“The goal is to create workplaces that are more inclusive, energizing, motivating, and supportive,” Dr. Bilimoria said. “We want to see academic institutions doing the kind of research and education work, dissemination, and outreach that meet the needs of the world today.”
“It is the right response for the moment,” she said. “We need a cultural mindset shift to become more inclusive. We need to recognize what that takes, how we get there, and what does that look like in a granular way — and put policies in place so the right information is there when decisions like hiring and promotions are made.”
Dr. Bilimoria said she is hopeful for the future. “It is about incremental change,” she said. “Higher education institutions are steeped in history and legacy. That’s their strength.”
“Yet there are periods for transformative institutional change. There’s a role for both. Incremental moves the needle within the system until the time is right for something more transformative.”
Through coping strategies which can require immense amounts of additional emotional and academic effort, sexual minority students navigate a chilly and heteronormative engineering climate by ‘passing’ as heterosexual, ‘covering’ or downplaying cultural characteristics associated with LGB identities, and garnering expertise to make themselves indispensable to others.”
– From “Navigating the Heteronormativity of Engineering: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Students,” Erin Cech, Ph.D., and Tom Waidzunas, Ph.D.
ERIN A. CECH, PH.D.
Erin A. Cech, Ph.D.’s body of work verifies a troubling picture of engineering as a heteronormative, male-dominated profession where a majority feels threatened by people who fail to conform to a heterosexual worldview, and who also distrust women’s and mothers’ ability to focus on their work.
But Dr. Cech, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, also sees glimmers of hope in a world where the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have galvanized women and racially minoritized communities; the COVID pandemic has empowered workers, and even the titans of Wall Street are requiring publicly traded companies to show progress in their diversity and inclusion goals.
Her evidence, collected throughout the past decade, shows how far engineering education and the profession remain from a perfectly functioning meritocracy.
In 2011, Dr. Cech released an article in Engineering Studies, with Tom Waidzunas, Ph.D., that revealed lesbian, gay, and bisexual students enrolled in engineering described a “heteronormative culture that forced the students to ‘pass’ as heterosexual or to downplay characteristics associated with their LGB identities.”
Because colleges and universities don’t ask students their sexual identities, the researchers collected data by interviewing students and holding focus groups. They posted flyers around the engineering buildings and wrote notes on chalkboards of engineering lecture halls advertising the study.
“Just the very act of writing, ‘Are you a gay, lesbian, or bisexual engineering student?’ on the board in an engineering classroom felt subversive at the time,” Dr. Cech said.
Drs. Cech and Waidzunas conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with LBG-identifying engineering students — many of whom were not open about their sexuality to anyone else in the college.
They found that, “through coping strategies which can require immense amounts of additional emotional and academic effort, sexual minority students navigate a chilly and heteronormative engineering climate by ‘passing’ as heterosexual, ‘covering’ or downplaying cultural characteristics associated with LGB identities, and garnering expertise to make themselves indispensable to others.”
A Grandmother’s Struggles Heightened Her Awareness of Difference
Groundbreaking research — into the need to divorce one’s passion from one’s work, and on the engineering culture’s corrosive effects on mothers and on LGBTQA+ persons — all started with Erin A. Cech’s grandmother.
An associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, Erin Cech, Ph.D., grew up in Bozeman, Montana, where she says she was struck by how different it was for her maternal grandmother, Alice Walsh, who was blind, to move through the world.
Dr. Cech, with her dad, who worked as an electrical engineer, and her mom, a special education teacher, visited her grandmother frequently in a town 90 miles from their home. “I’d lead (my grandmother) onto buses as a kid,” Dr. Cech recalled. “I learned how to tell her when to step up on curbs and [to go] down stairs.”
“She lived by herself and managed the challenges of a 100-year-old house,” Dr. Cech said. “She had an incredible network of friends, and to watch her navigate her life was amazing and inspirational.
“But it was also quite frustrating. She couldn’t read newspapers. She’d get boxes of cassette tapes sent once every few months [of newspapers read aloud]. But it was news from five months before.”
Dr. Cech also became aware that her grandmother, who operated mechanical calculators called comptometers at the local electric company before she lost her sight, trained male engineers to do the calculations but had no opportunities to advance on her own.
And Dr. Cech, who identifies as queer, experienced a masculine and heteronormative environment in her college engineering classes.
As one of only two or three women in her electrical engineering classes, Dr. Cech said she didn’t dare speak up against the homophobic jokes or the sexist mnemonic devices that students used to remember color coding on electronic resistors in her electronics labs.
These personal experiences, and hearing about marginalization experiences among her classmates of color, propelled Dr. Cech to investigate processes of social inequality within STEM.
She said she realized that, if she wanted to help bring about social change, she needed more training in theoretical and methodological ways to understand these inequalities. So she added a sociology major as an undergraduate and pursued a Ph.D. in sociology.
Dr. Cech said a “ray of hope” has emerged in the grassroots Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (oSTEM), with more than 130 student chapters as well as an unspecified number of professional chapters, according to the nonprofit’s website. oSTEM welcomes allies and lists seven affinity groups: Ace/Aro, (Dis)Ability, Womxn, InQUEERy, Middle Sexualities, Race and Ethnicity, and Trans and Non-Binary.
“There’s a lot of movement in the student space and more engagement today than even a few years ago,” Dr. Cech said. “It’s important that students and academics can have that kind of space to talk with others, to mentor, and to be mentored.”
“These additional work burdens are often accompanied by academic and social isolation, making engineering school a hostile place for many LGB-identifying students,” the study concluded. “This research provides an opportunity to theorize categories of inequality within engineering that do not have visible markers, and to consider them within a broader framework of intersectionality.”
In 2016, Dr. Cech, Dr. Waidzunas, and Stephanie Farrell, Ph.D., professor in chemical engineering, surveyed 47 engineering deans and program directors and found that participants said they were somewhat or very supportive of many LGBTQA+ inclusion measures, but they were not necessarily willing to commit college resources to those measures.
Why? They were afraid of faculty pushback.
Dr. Cech’s article with William Rothwell, a Ph.D. in sociology, published in the December 2018 issue of Journal of Engineering Education, found similar patterns among LGBTQ-identifying engineering students.
The students were more likely to feel marginalized, have their work devalued, and they suffer more negative health and wellness outcomes than their non-LGBTQ peers as a result.
In the engineering profession, Dr. Cech’s work found similar results. Drs. Cech and Waidzunas’ Jan. 15, 2021, article in Science Advances found that LGBTQ STEM professionals were more likely to experience career limitations, harassment, and professional devaluation than their non-LGBTQ peers. They were also more likely to intend to leave STEM.
A key takeaway is that engineering — both in academia and in the corporate world — needs to take seriously concerns about the inequities within their ranks, for the good of those marginalized and for the good of engineering in general, Dr. Cech said.
There’s no time to lose.
The 2021 Science Advances article, based on representative survey data from more than 25,000 members of 21 STEM professional societies, revealed that LGBTQ professionals had a 50% higher likelihood of intending to leave their jobs — 22% versus 15% for non-LGBTQ STEM professionals. Also, 12% of LGBTQ professionals, compared with 8% of their non-LGBTQ peers, said they planned to leave their STEM professions in the next five years. Dr. Cech said she was heartened by news coverage of the findings in the magazines Nature and Science.
She said it’s also a step forward that some professional societies welcome those who identify as LGBTQA+ and host training workshops, learning communities, and other resources to support their LGBTQA+ members.
Those circumstances are buoyed by the U.S. Supreme Court decision on June 15, 2020, that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Dr. Cech said she believes “there will be marginally more” tolerance among younger generations. “But I expect that to take quite a bit of time,” she said.
STEM proves brutal for new parents, particularly for new moms
Dr. Cech has also researched how new parents get through the transition of taking care of new children while maintaining a hectic workload.
She and Mary Blair-Loy, Ph.D., (2019) found that men and women often leave full-time STEM employment after the birth of their first child, but that women are much more likely to do so by a 43% to 23% margin.
Even mothers who remain in the professional workforce full time encounter stereotypes painting them as less competent than equally qualified men and childless women, and face salary penalties and career barriers even while contributing the same dedicated work.
That’s on top of Dr. Cech’s gender studies research in 2013 that unveiled a $13,000 average wage gap between men and women in engineering. In that research, she found patterns of segregation, with women less likely to have access to the most culturally valued and well-paid job activities than equally qualified men engineers.
The ‘work trumps everything’ kind of culture has been forced to pivot to a different mentality. It’s not work or family, or family or work. Life is both.”
– Nadya A. Fouad, Ph.D., distinguished professor, department of educational psychology, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
What gives me renewed strength is that we’re much more open as leaders, employees, and educators to talk about these issues. These are difficult conversations to have. It’s sensitive. It hits some raw nerves, but they are very necessary to have by creating or reinforcing safe spaces and systems.”
– Romila Singh, Ph.D., associate professor, organizations and strategic management, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
NADYA A. FOUAD, PH.D., AND ROMILA SINGH, PH.D.
It’s been a decade since Nadya A. Fouad, Ph.D., and Romila Singh, Ph.D., released their seminal work, “Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering” (2011), based on 5,500 women answering a survey by pouring out their personal stories of being ignored, slighted, and mistreated in the engineering workplace.
The results shut down what Dr. Fouad, distinguished professor in the department of educational psychology (School of Education) at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, called “the mantra from White male engineers that women want to have babies” and that’s why they leave the profession.
“It’s just infuriating enough to drive us crazy,” she said. “[Women] leave because it’s so toxic. It’s not an excuse to go have a family and do something else.”
Dr. Singh, associate professor, organizations and strategic management in the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Lubar School of Business, added, “There was no flexibility, and it was a huge trigger. They tried to make it work with inflexible policies and, after trying their best, decided, ‘My salary doesn’t justify my getting all kinds of qualified help [to raise my own children and to run the household].’”
The study also revealed that, though an organization’s systems, policies, and actions matter, the way workers and managers interact — whether they support or undermine their women colleagues — had a profound influence on women engineers’ satisfaction, commitment, and ultimately, their desire to leave their employer and/or the profession.
The same was true for men as well, based on the researchers’ recent findings comparing men and women engineers’ experiences with undermining behaviors at work. Their results revealed that a hostile, undermining work environment hurt retention and engagement of both male and female engineers.
Dr. Fouad is quick to note that the bottom line isn’t just “women are good — men are bad.”
“It’s a systemic problem,” she said. “Good workplaces work for everybody. Toxic workplaces hurt everybody.”
Instilled with Confidence and a “Can-do” Attitude, They Became Gender Equity Researchers
Never underestimate the power of a brilliant mother who believes in you and your success.
Just take for example the mothers of gender-equity-in-engineering researchers Nadya A. Fouad, Ph.D., and Romila Singh, Ph.D., authors of “Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering,” and tireless advocates of keeping and promoting women in engineering.
Dr. Fouad’s mother, Maria Elisabeth Fouad, who passed away in 2009, was a cook and a linguist who felt the sting of unfairness when she was unable to leverage her expertise in the workplace after she came to America from her native Brazil. She started teaching Spanish at Iowa State University, where she and Dr. Fouad’s father met while earning their graduate degrees, but she was limited without a Ph.D.
Yet she was “an absolute instiller of confidence,” Dr. Fouad said. “She was a great champion. I have a younger brother. She believed that her kids could absolutely do no wrong.”
Dr. Fouad’s father, A.A. Fouad, was a prominent engineering professor at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. A member of the National Academy of Engineering who passed away in 2017, he supported Dr. Fouad throughout her career, helping her connect with engineering schools and students to help her collect valuable data and information.
Dr. Singh vividly remembers poring over her mother’s draft drawings when she was growing up in the family’s home in Bhilai, a steel manufacturing town in the eastern-central part of the state of Chhattisgarh in India. Her mom, a mechanical engineer who earned her degree in the 1950s, would bring home the blueprints from projects she was working on with MECON Limited. The consulting company provided services for design, engineering, consultancy, inspection, construction, and project management, among others.
“I thought it was the coolest thing ever — to see the drawings and to see her do electrical, plumbing, and other projects around the house,” Dr. Singh said. “There was nothing she couldn’t do. She’d rip up walls and redesign things around the house. She was all about having a ‘can-do’ approach and not taking no for an answer when faced with obstacles.”
Dr. Singh’s father, a mechanical engineer, worked second shift so that he and Dr. Singh’s mother could both work.
“They took turns being at home,” Dr. Singh said. “It never crossed my dad’s mind that she would stay home full time and not work at all.”
“This way of growing up established and imprinted on me that women engineers are as tough, as good, as capable, and as accomplished as male engineers. This was before I started primary school,” Dr. Singh said. “The can-do attitude has been a persistent theme — that we can impact change and solve problems.”
Dr. Singh earned her master’s degree in psychology from the University of Delhi in India and her Ph.D. in organizational sciences from Drexel University in Philadelphia as a way to leverage her background to “get a deep dive into important issues of work/life balance and the attraction and retention of highly skilled professionals.”
“The ‘can-do’ attitude was a bit of a dive when I started on a different path (studying for a doctorate) in a different country, and it took some time to regain my voice, and to start using my voice to advocate for myself and others.”
It’s about fixing the weak or broken systems, rather than trying to “fix women” to try to prevent their departure from companies and the engineering profession.
In fact, their research had found, pre-COVID, that the engineering profession pushed out men who felt that the workplace culture left little to no time for their families and compelled them to consider leaving their companies and the profession.
Drs. Singh and Fouad have now turned to the question unique to the gravest pandemic in American history: Will the COVID-19 pandemic turn the tide toward greater recognition and retention of women engineers?
They’re going a step beyond their pre-COVID research — to find out the best ways teams become open to a variety of perspectives — and are now hitting at the heart of companies’ and organizations’ work policies that encourage or stifle creativity and innovation.
“Women have had to figure out how to teach and help with homework [for children] at home, or who’s home when, with what kid, and who has the flexibility to figure out what to do on Tuesday,” Dr. Fouad said.
The stress has only amplified for working parents, especially mothers, in making these daily juggling decisions during the pandemic.
Have corporate and academic leaders paid attention? Will they make policies that encourage men and women to take parental leave, give women an uplifting space where they can be promoted and treated fairly, and let women and men have the flexibility they need to have personal lives?
Or is it just back to the office, same old, same old?
They’re hopeful but realistic.
“Our models of what it takes to be seen as successful in the workplace — there’s no going back [post-COVID] to the way it was earlier,” Dr. Fouad said. “This has provided a test. If you’re going to gauge me by whether I have kids [yelling] in the background (for both men and women) during a video call, or because I signed into my work at 10 a.m. and stayed past midnight, that’s now a problem. The ‘work trumps everything’ kind of culture has been forced to pivot to a different mentality. It’s not work or family, or family or work. Life is both.”
Dr. Singh said she and Dr. Fouad have not only tirelessly shared their evidence-based research with leaders, but have also asked them how they’re making systemic changes.
“Women are not looking for token roles,” Dr. Singh said, “so you can say, ‘We have a woman in the C-suite.’ But that doesn’t answer the deeper questions like, ‘What are the systems and criteria in place for promotion to the C-suite roles, and are they being equitably applied?’”
In fact, Drs. Fouad and Singh’s research has provided clear ways to keep women from fleeing the engineering profession. For example, women expressed dissatisfaction with a lack of security, good compensation, good working conditions, opportunities for advancement, and a sense of accomplishment at work.
COVID exposed enormous new cracks in the workplace security blanket. For example, C-suite turnover — among CEOs, chief financial officers, chief marketing officers, and chief technology officers — is at a record high.
“These situations are complex, involve multilayered issues, and touch many systems that trigger pulling back in some way,” Dr. Singh said. “It’s not easy to say, ‘I’m burnt out. I need to put my own well-being above corporate goals.’”
Increasingly, athletes adored by millions of fans, from Simone Biles to Naomi Osaka to Michael Phelps and Gabriel Medina, are speaking out, she said. “At the peak of their amazing talents and careers, they’re saying, ‘I need to also take care of my mental health, my well-being.’”
That portends potential good news, Dr. Singh said.
“What gives me renewed strength is that we’re much more open as leaders, employees, and educators to talk about these issues,” she said. “These are difficult conversations to have. It’s sensitive. It hits some raw nerves, but they are very necessary to have by creating or reinforcing safe spaces and systems.”
“What still gives me optimism, despite some of the [inevitable public] derision faced by these athletes who opened up about prioritizing their well-being, is that it gives other people the courage to say, ‘If they can be open about this, I can, too. It allows me to have the courage to speak about my own struggles, even if there is a huge price to pay for this.’”
The unspoken payoff for so many people is self-care and focusing on one’s own well-being, Dr. Singh said.
It’s more about changing engineering than about changing women or people of color. What we need to fix is our own culture, to be more welcoming and to allow for diversity instead of punishing or penalizing.”
– Susan Lord, Ph.D., chair and professor, department of integrated engineering, University of San Diego
SUSAN M. LORD, PH.D.
Engineering students in Susan M. Lord’s circuits class — an oft-dreaded class toward their degrees — must find out where a key capacitor ingredient is mined. When they discover that it’s a conflict mineral, they have to explain how they’d minimize its use.
The point? A prime ingredient in tantalum capacitors is considered the “blood diamond” of electronics. Tantalum is often mined amid armed conflict and human rights abuses as warring groups fight over mines and smuggling routes. Tantalum is sourced in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Brazil.
Next, the students are instructed to research a company’s conflict mineral strategy. They answer questions such as, “How do you interpret the data? Look critically at the source of the data and how it is presented. Apple cites its own data. Is it reliable?”
If you remember circuits class as a dry, excruciating exercise, welcome to the new world of “integrated engineering.” It’s the result of decades of research and cooperative work with sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and like-minded educators.
In fact, Susan Lord, Ph.D., was a key player in creating the department of integrated engineering at the University of San Diego, which she chairs.
The university’s Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering website proclaims, “Here, students tinker, collaborate, build, test and create innovative solutions that make a world of difference.”
Students are graduated from the program with a degree in engineering. The goal is to nudge the students, throughout their studies, to ask themselves, “What am I called to do? How do I want to use my talents in the world?” Dr. Lord said.
Another aim is to let students envision a future in which their work isn’t split from their dreams, hobbies, and authentic selves. Perhaps a first-year engineer has little influence on the job, but she could volunteer for pro bono work that would make a huge difference in the community, Dr. Lord said.
“I talk about my children,” said Dr. Lord, the mother of two college-age daughters. “It’s just as important for boys, too, to say, ‘I love what I do. But I don’t do it 24/7 and that’s OK.’”
She can now laugh about being admonished early in her career by a male professor who said that she couldn’t possibly be an electrical engineering professor if she didn’t have an oscilloscope in her garage. Isn’t that what she did in her spare time?
Well, she’s never had an oscilloscope in her garage and now she’s a Fellow of the IEEE and a tenured professor.
“There have to be multiple ways of success,” Dr. Lord said.
Following Her Father’s Footsteps, She Experienced the Gender Gap
Her deep experience in engineering education leadership provided a unique platform for Susan M. Lord, Ph.D., to influence engineering teaching reforms.
She serves as co-director of the National Effective Teaching Institute. As a fellow of the IEEE and the American Society for Engineering Education, she served as general co-chair of the Frontiers in Education Conference, president of the IEEE Education Society, and associate editor of the IEEE Transactions on Education and the Journal of Engineering Education.
Dr. Lord first experienced engineering education’s culture when she followed in her dad’s footsteps (he was a metallurgical engineer who taught at Drexel University in Philadelphia) in her own way by earning a dual undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and materials science from Cornell University and her master’s and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University.
“I thought that my experience would be like [my dad’s],” she said. “But I found out that being a female was a big deal. I felt that sense of not belonging. I was the only female of 25 in my research group. My male peers would ask me, ‘What do women think?’”
“I had no idea how to answer that, but I thought, ‘Let me find out,’” Dr. Lord recalled. “I went to feminist studies classes. I learned about gaps. It gave me a language to interpret what I was experiencing in my life.”
“I don’t want my students or my colleagues to feel the way that I did,” she said.
As her mother and paternal grandparents before her, Dr. Lord turned to teaching, to try to accomplish those goals. Her instincts in leading the mission no doubt stemmed from her Italian immigrant maternal grandparents, who worked in retail and ran a bread delivery business.
She said she’s a realist in that culture is slow to change, especially a system such as engineering that has been designed to support uniformity rather than diversity. In a typical engineering classroom in America, she noted, you’d expect to find two-thirds of the students to be white men and fewer than one in five to be women.
But Dr. Lord is hopeful when she sees her own classrooms in integrated engineering, which this year comprise 36% to 78% women — far above the national average. While most engineering classrooms are 77% white, her classes have been about 50% white. She said she believes this shows that the integrated engineering approach is attracting a broader range of people.
As she had hoped, the students experience a more welcoming culture than she did and learn to think about and practice engineering in more holistic ways.
“They are poised to make a difference in addressing the greatest challenges of our world,” Dr. Lord said, “today and in the future.”
A passion born of personal experience and breakthrough research
Dr. Lord’s zeal to encourage engineering students to critically analyze data, realize subtle interconnections, and see the field in new ways — and be better prepared for the workplace as a result — stems from her own college experience and her research with Michelle Camacho, Ph.D., a sociologist and cultural anthropologist, in unearthing Latinas’ battles with exclusionary forces that shape the culture of engineering.
“Real engineering is messy,” Dr. Lord says of the need to teach students to see interconnections and consider the consequences of their work projects, materials, and breakthroughs.
Drs. Lord and Camacho met at a community engagement event, and realized that they could mine MIDFIELD, a student records database based on partnering multiple universities’ information.
“[MIDFIELD] can let us do tremendous quantitative research, but not ask why,” Dr. Lord said. So she and Dr. Camacho teamed on several National Science Foundation grants to interview students to obtain the qualitative analysis they needed. An early result was the book The Borderlands of Education: Latinas in Engineering (2013).
“It’s more about changing engineering than about changing women or people of color,” Dr. Lord said. “What we need to fix is our own culture, to be more welcoming and to allow for diversity instead of punishing or penalizing.”
That means, in academia, that faculty and staff should seek to listen and understand the students’ individual needs in order to respond with appropriate support, advice, and options.
That’s true even for subsets of categories, such as women veterans.
Though Dr. Lord said she and Dr. Camacho (2018) studied a sample of 60 students, of whom seven were women who had served in the military, no “one size fits all” model emerged for helping them transition into college. “University faculty and staff could be encouraged to complete trainings or webinars to learn more about student veterans and their assets,” their research found. They conducted this research with colleagues Joyce Main, Ph.D., associate professor, Purdue University School of Engineering Education; Catherine Mobley, Ph.D., professor of sociology, Clemson University department of sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice; and Catherine Brawner, Ph.D., president of Research Triangle Educational Consultants.
Dr. Lord’s extensive curriculum vitae includes two book chapters, 65 articles published in refereed journals, 139 articles published in conference proceedings, 51 peer-reviewed summaries published in conference proceedings, 94 presentations, guest editorials, magazine articles, tip sheets, and newsletters.
Collaborating with Denise R. Simmons, Ph.D., Dr. Lord offered a relentless critique of engineering culture, demanding that it rise above deeply ingrained exclusionary practices. The title says it all: “Removing Invisible Barriers and Changing Mindsets to Improve and Diversify Pathways in Engineering” (Simmons and Lord 2019). Dr. Simmons is associate professor in the University of Florida department of civil and coastal engineering.
Another collaboration, with Dr. Simmons and Brooke C. Coley, Ph.D., assistant professor in engineering at the Polytechnic School of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, resulted in the publication of “Dissolving the Margins: LEANING INto an Antiracist Review Process” (2021), in the Journal of Engineering Education.
One hopeful sign is that Dr. Lord’s integrated engineering department won raves from accreditation agency ABET, calling the program “exemplar,” “innovative,” and “student-centered.”
Dr. Lord is leading workshops to show other educators how to teach inclusively, and she sees a possibly more compassionate environment post-COVID.
Ideally, recognizing gender disparities in engineering as embedded in the broader societal and national context, any advances that women make — as a whole and as a highly differentiated group — can benefit everyone, leading to greater gender equity and better science and engineering, encompassing diverse perspectives.”
— From: “Gender and Race Intersectional Effects in the U.S. Engineering Workforce: Who Stays? Who Leaves?,” Yu Tao, Ph.D., and Connie L. McNeely, Ph.D.
YU TAO, PH.D.
The engineering community — and science and technology as a whole — must delve into its own gender disparities and people’s unique experiences of discrimination and oppression to realize diversity’s benefits.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that, even among minority women, their interests and outcomes in engineering vary.
For example, Black women have a lower probability than African American men, but a greater probability than White and Latina women to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering.
But Black women are one of the groups with the lowest probability of actually working in electrical and computer engineering jobs among all gender and racial/ethnic groups, according to the research (2021) by Yu Tao, Ph.D., and her co-author, Cheryl Leggon, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology. They wrote their findings in a chapter titled “African American Women in Engineering: Intersectionality as a Pathway to Social Justice.” It appeared in the book Social Justice and Education in the 21st Century: Research from South Africa and the United States, by Willie Pearson Jr., Ph.D., and Vijay Reddy, Ph.D., Eds. (2021).
Even more intriguing, no gender differences exist in achieving an engineering occupation among African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinas/Latinos who earned doctorate degrees in engineering. This finding suggests the equalizing effect of an engineering doctoral degree to men and women.
These findings stem from drill-down research into Black, Latina, Asian, and women engineers who identify as different genders by Dr. Tao, associate professor of sociology at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. Dr. Tao earned her Ph.D. in the sociology of science and technology from Georgia Tech and her master’s degree in educational media technology from Boston University, the latter in half the program’s usual 18-month time frame.
“Ideally, recognizing gender disparities in engineering as embedded in the broader societal and national context, any advances that women make — as a whole and as a highly differentiated group — can benefit everyone, leading to greater gender equity and better science and engineering, encompassing diverse perspectives,” according to Dr. Tao’s co-authored article (2019) with Connie L. McNeely, Ph.D., a sociologist and professor of public policy at George Mason University, “Gender and Race Intersectional Effects in the U.S. Engineering Workforce: Who Stays? Who Leaves?”
A Reverence for Teaching and an Affinity for Technology
Yu Tao, Ph.D., grew up in Shanghai revering her teachers. “I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “They were my role models.” That’s why Dr. Tao earned an undergraduate degree in English.
Her focus changed while she worked on her thesis — creativity and innovation in technology. She said she was drawn to technology even farther as she delved into magazine and newspaper coverage.
Dr. Tao worked for a tech company as a team assistant and quickly moved into supply chain management. She said she found it fulfilling to “make things work.”
“If there’s no good supply chain management, nothing would move forward,” she said.
But Dr. Tao had higher ambitions, so she moved to the United States in 2003 to study instructional technology. She finished Boston University’s 18-month Master of Education program in half that time and spent her final summer there traveling the country with friends.
She said she loved Boston for its cultural attractions, relative quiet compared with New York, and her first experience with snow.
“The first snow was a snowstorm that lasted two days,” she said. “That was the most snow I had ever seen.”
Dr. Tao moved into the deep data analysis of STEM fields phase of her career — and an entirely different weather world — while she earned her Ph.D. at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
Dr. Tao, who grew up in Shanghai, began researching gender and other inequities in engineering by doing data analysis for her Ph.D. advisor at Georgia Tech, Willie Pearson Jr., Ph.D., a professor of sociology in the School of History and Sociology. Dr. Pearson, whom President Barack Obama appointed to his Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, has published several books on the experiences of African American scientists with Ph.D.s, including major studies on chemists and engineers.
That led to Dr. Tao’s research detailing the many challenges that Black women face in STEM education and in their careers, ranging from being stereotyped to having fewer mentors to getting nowhere in their careers.
Now, Dr. Tao is working to increase interest and retention in the engineering profession among women and other underrepresented groups.
Dr. Tao and Ye Yang, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Systems and Enterprises at Stevens Institute of Technology and the principal investigator, will start this summer proposing ways to improve teaching in undergraduate software engineering.
That’s because, even as websites crash under the weight of user traffic in the real world, the concept of performance in software development is rarely a topic of classroom discussion.
Dr. Tao and Dr. Yang are designing a toolkit that aims to give software engineering students “real world” examples that address inequality and social justice, in part to show how important performance is to their work. Dr. Tao will evaluate whether the toolkit could also increase retention of women students in software engineering.
Though a more expansive teaching style, including greater student interactivity and studying social and political events, remains rare in engineering higher education, researchers are increasingly leveraging their skill to address such issues as race, class, gender, and ethnicity in housing, transportation, and other policies, Dr. Tao said.
One example is the Data Science for Social Good initiative, which aims to focus data science research to benefit people in the developing world and other marginalized communities.
Privacy research aims at dataset equity
Dr. Tao currently is studying how to equal the playing field in the realm of “fair privacy” — fairly protecting online users’ information captured in datasets.
She is doing so along with Hui Wang, Ph.D., principal investigator for the study’s National Science Foundation grant, and associate professor of computer science in the School of Engineering and Science at Stevens Institute of Technology.
While all users in online datasets are anonymous, it is actually possible to identify certain users and, based on their backgrounds, some are more easily identified than others, making them more vulnerable to privacy attacks.
That’s why it’s so important to ensure all users’ information is protected equitably, Dr. Tao said.
Atkinson, R., Mobley, C., Brawner, C., Lord, S.M., Camacho, M., and Main J. (2018). I Never Played the “Girl Card”: Experiences and Identity Intersections of Women Student Veterans in Engineering. American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference, Salt Lake City.
Bilimoria, D. and Liang, X. (2015). Gender Equity in Science and Engineering: Advancing Change in Higher Education. Routledge Studies in Management, Organizations and Society.
Bilimoria, D. and Stewart, A.J. (2009). “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: The Academic Climate for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Faculty in Science and Engineering. NWSA Journal 21(2): 85–103.
Camacho, M. and Lord S.M. (2013). The Borderlands of Education: Latinas in Engineering. Lexington Books: Lanham, Maryland.
Cech, E. (2013). Ideological Wage Inequalities?: The Technical/Social Dualism and the Gender Wage Gap in Engineering. Social Forces 91(4): 1147–1182.
Cech, E. and Blair-Loy, M. (2019). The Changing Career Trajectories of New Parents in STEM. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 116. 201810862. 10.1073/pnas.1810862116.
Cech, E. and Rothwell, W. (2018). LGBTQ Inequality in Engineering Education. Journal of Engineering Education 107(4): 583–610.
Cech, E. and Waidzunas, T. (2011). Navigating the Heteronormativity of Engineering: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Students. Engineering Studies (3)1: 1–24.
Cech, E. and Waidzunas, T. (2021). Systemic Inequalities for LGBTQ Professionals in STEM. Science Advances 7(3).
Cech, E., Waidzunas, T., and Farrell, S. (2016). Engineering Deans’ Support for LGBTQ Inclusion. American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference, New Orleans.
Coley, B.C., Simmons, D.R., and Lord, S.M. (2021). Dissolving the Margins: LEANING INto an Antiracist Review Process. Journal of Engineering Education 110(1): 8–14.
Fouad, N.A. and Singh, R. (2011). “Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering.” University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
Simmons, D.R. and Lord, S.M. (2019). Removing Invisible Barriers and Changing Mindsets to Improve and Diversify Pathways in Engineering. Advances in Engineering Education, June 2019.
Tao, Y. and Leggon, C. (2021). African American Women in Engineering: Intersectionality as a Pathway to Social Justice. In Social Justice and Education in the 21st Century: Research from South Africa and the United States, W. Pearson Jr. and V. Reddy, Eds. Springer International Publishing: 241–272.
Tao, Y. and McNeely C. (2019). Gender and Race Intersectional Effects in the U.S. Engineering Workforce: Who Stays? Who Leaves? International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology 11(1): 181–202.