Tag Archives: women

five articles about women and engineering

ere are five articles about women and engineering. What do these five articles have in common? They were sent to me by men. Thanks guys!

1.Lack of Confidence Spurs Women to leave Engineering

Why do women engineering majors drop out of engineering and switch to other majors? It’s not because women lack competence, it’s because women tend to lack confidence (at least in comparison to their male peers). “As one of the most sex-segregated professions outside the military, engineering carries ingrained notions and biases about men being more naturally suited to the field, which can have self-reinforcing effects.”

A superstar women engineering faculty member whose mannerisms are similar to my own (i.e., she doesn’t ooze confidence) once told/warned me that “a lack of confidence can be interpreted as a lack of competence.”  It sounds like it’s not just the men who incorrectly infer–we women internalize this too.

This study doesn’t capture the incoming college students who are deterred for even selecting a science or engineering major, since their high school teachers keep reminding them about how tough and competitive these majors are (see article #4 below). I realize that these “missing” engineering majors are impossible to track, but I find this issue particularly relevant since I started college as a history major (I had particularly low self-confidence in high school). Luckily, I found my way to engineering.

This study has real implications for those of us who are faculty members in STEM fields. Our words and internal biases can have powerful effects. However, we’ve all had a confident alpha male bomb in our classes and have had non-confident, conscientious superstar students, so I hope we know that appearances can be misleading.

2. Engineering blogs: why women don’t go into engineering

A woman’s competence seems to be a function of what she look like and how much makeup she wears.

This blog post makes me cringe because it hits the mark. An interview with this woman engineer was posted online. The first comment about her professional interview was an inappropriate comment about the relative hotness of women in her field. Many women feel uncomfortable in engineering because a few men in engineering always seem to comment on our appearances first. (Note: I am not blaming all or even most men here). I would guess that this is mainly a maturity issue among undergraduates in engineering, which would again create a bad climate for women engineering students. I’m glad that Punk Rock OR attracts more enlightened men.

3.Why women leave the engineering field

A slew of statistical tests using NSF’s data on former engineering majors suggest some interesting findings. The first is that “women actually don’t leave jobs in science at an above average rate. The difference…comes from the engineering sector.” Why do women disproportionately leave engineering but not other scientific fields? The study’s author finds evidence to suggest that being in “a majority-male environment” leads women to leave engineering. The author claims that work-life balance benefits are nice, but they miss the mark when it comes to retaining women in engineering.

4. Working conditions drive women from engineering

Another NSF sponsored study examines why women leave engineering, and it reports similar results. They find that women don’t leave for family reasons nearly as much as we’ve been led to believe. “Nearly half of the women surveyed who left the engineering field said it was because of working conditions and issues such as a lack of career advancement and low salary.” This corroborates some of the findings in the previously listed study.

5. Girls go Geek…Again

In 1967, the fashion magazine Cosmopolitan featured an article that urged women to become computer scientists. Yes, this is for real. You should really check this blog post out of only for this pictures. In 1987, 42% of software developers were women. However, women computer science majors dropped from 37% in 1984 to 20% in 2006. In the past couple of years, women CS majors have risen at some of the top universities. This blog post by Fog Creek Software delves into the mystery of why the number of women CS majors has ebbed and flowed. My husband (a programmer) found this part of the blog post relevant and actionable:

[O]ne of the things that happens is that women don’t even think they’re qualified for [a computer science position] because it’s advertised in competitive language. The language of competition not only doesn’t appeal to many women, it actually puts them off. Google advertises their Summer of Code with very competitive language. In 2006, GNOME received almost two hundred GSoC applicants – all male. When GNOME advertised an identical program for women, but emphasizing the opportunities for mentorship and learning, they received over a hundred highly qualified female applicants for the three spots they were able to fund.

I have written about women trailblazers in computing once or twice before. I am still floored by how many women worked for the Bell Labs data center in the 1960s. These retro pictures of computing (1940s – 1960s) also feature women. It’s too bad that when we think of computer scientists, we tend to think of men. Apparently, women have always been an integral part of computer science.

Retro women of computing

All articles and links were sent to me be men. Hat tips to Hemanshu Kaul, Red Dave, Aaron Ball, and Christopher Felton.


the first supercomputer was powered by women

I stumbled across an article on ENIAC, the world’s first supercomputer that was built by the Army and unveiled in 1946.  It summarizes twelve factoids about ENIAC. I found these two the most interesting:

5. The original programmers of ENIAC computer were women. The most famous of the group was Jean Jennings Bartik (originally Betty Jennings). The other five women were Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas, and Ruth Lichterman. All six have been inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame. When the U.S. Army introduced the ENIAC to the public, it introduced the inventors (Dr. John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert), but it never introduced the female programmers.

6. Jean Bartik went on to become an editor for Auerback Publishers, and eventually worked for Data Decisions, which was funded by Ziff-Davis Publishing. She has a museum in her name at Northwest Missouri State university in Maryville, Missouri.

Kudos to the women of ENIAC and other women of supercomputing fame!

The women of ENIAC


Can stereotypes affect your success?

Today, I had the pleasure of attending a Women in Math discussion and video seminar by Dr. Claude Steel from Stanford University about math stereotypes.  Steel recently wrote the book Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.  The lecture is available online (check your library catalog or database for “Race, Racism, and Antiracism”).

Steel argues that achievement gaps–such as those that we see in higher education–are not primarily due to differences in preparation.  Steel is a psychologist who has examined achievement gaps through the issue of stereotypes.  He defines stereotype threat refers to the experience of being in a situation in which a negative stereotype for a group applies.  He studies how the stereotype structure of a society trickles down to the individual level to ultimately affect identity and achievement.

What does this have to do with math?

One study evaluated how men and women performed on a difficult math test for math majors in college.  They reasoned that women would experience this test different than men, from a psychological point of view, since our society acknowledges a stereotype about group-based limits of women’s ability to do well in math.  Men have no such expectation, so one group has an expectation to contend with and the other doesn’t.  Men do better on this test than women, although both groups were on the “frontier of their skills.”  Does this suggest than men are better than math than women? Only if the disparities persist regardless of the stereotype threats that are present.  (And if you regularly read this blog,then you probably know the answer to this question).

The hypothesis was that if you remove the stereotype threat and the disparity goes away, then the stereotype affects math performance.  And, yes, the disparities went away.  The results were replicated with other groups/stereotypes (such as race), and the findings held.  They also found that the disparities were highest among students that highly identify with school and with students that are told that the test measures ability.  No disparities occur for the students who don’t care about school.  For women in math, a paper in Psychological Science found that the degree to which a woman’s math performance varied was a function of how many men were also taking the test.

Steel claims that all of things findings point to students performance being linked to this question: How welcome am I in this environment?

In higher education, we mainly have students that care about doing well in school, and thus, we are susceptible to stereotype threats.  Steel has some suggestions:

  1. First, acknowledge that the stereotypes are there and that they affect performance.
  2. Communicate that one has high standards, but that you believe the students can meet them.
  3. Let students know that intelligence isn’t fixed, but can be increased through hard work.

The ensuing discussion revealed that professors can reinforce the notion that we believe that students are capable of doing the work, even though the material might be challenging.

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are there more women in OR?

It’s been a busy summer! I am finally starting to think about catching up on reading.

The big news for women in mathematical sciences is that women now earn 30% up PhDs in the mathematical sciences, up from 5% in the 1950s. (I actually tweeted this one, but it deserves more than 140 characters).  This is great news, of course.  This tidbit made a splash after a paper was published in PNAS on 6/1/09 (by Janet S. Hyde and Janet E. Mertz).  What is also interesting is that women received 11-15% of PhDs in the mathematical sciences between the 1890s and the 1940s!  The authors note that men do seem to have more variability in their mathematics ability, resulting in more men who score at the top and the bottom than women, and that this transcends nationality (incidentally, this is what Larry Summers got in trouble for saying).  However, Hyde and Mertz conclude that the evidence shows that this is likely the result of nurture not nature, and hence, it is changeable.

I was curious about the data from the US.  NSF has a wealth of data on women in engineering and the sciences.  Overall, women are growing at a faster rate than men in science and engineering fields.  The figure below (from NSF), illustrates this nicely.

There is bad news.  The data shows that the proportion of BS degrees in engineering awarded to women has gone down since 2000 (from 20.9% in 2000 to 19.5% in 2004).  It looks more optimistic at the MS and PhD levels.

Figure C-1. Bachelors degrees awarded in S&E and non-S&E fields, by sex: 1966–2006

Figure C-1. Bachelor's degrees awarded in S&E and non-S&E fields, by sex: 1966–2006

Thanks to Larry from IEOR Tools for urging me to write about this!

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