Thursday, August 6, 2009

Female Engineers Persistent

A recent article in the Chronicle comments on a study suggesting that female engineering students are retained at equal rates with male students, which is good news overall. However, I think the conclusion that there is no need to focus on retention is misplaced. Rather this suggests that efforts to retain female students are working (e.g. making things a little more friendly for women) and should be continued, while efforts to attract women should be increased.

My experience as academic adviser to >90 undergraduate engineering students is that preparation is probably the biggest factor in retention. Students who come in with a poor math or science (chemistry/physics) are the most likely to switch out of engineering. Another issue we have also observed is that students who are encouraged to start in courses that are too advanced their freshmen year are more likely to transfer our of engineering. For example starting in Calc II rather than Calc III, and having some repeated material but higher grade builds confidence and correlates with success. This tends to impact students from small (often rural schools) and inner city schools in a disproportionate way. So the new party line is to give up some of those AP credits, have an easier freshmen year and build confidence. I have mixed feeling about this since clearly this advice does not apply for super bright students and it's hard for me to tell in 15 minutes who these super bright kids.

What are your thoughts on the retention data? I do have to say I like the term persistence. I think you need to have a little staying power to survive as a female engineer.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Summer camp for scientists

I recently attended a Gordon conference (better known as summer camp for scientists). It was overall a great time. Rustic setting, good talks, a chance to see old friends and make new ones, a bit of time to reflect on my field in general..... I am encouraged by the increasing number of women in my field, both as faculty, but also as post-docs and students. It has definitely increased since my days as a graduate student. However, there are still some signs of the subtle undercurrent of a "man's world". I've grown used to it from hanging out with guys in college and graduate school, so sometimes I almost don't notice it. But then someone slips and says something in public without thinking, and you wonder, "is that what they are really thinking all the time?" It was also interesting to observe people's responses to the comments. I realized that when you know someone, you are more likely to dismiss their comments if they are generally supportive of women/minorities and nice to you. But, for students/post-docs who had never met these people they came off as real jerks and other actions they had taken (e.g. asking a harsh question of a female speaker) were viewed in a negative light after the comment. So, how do you deal with that? And if you were the chair of the conference, would you ask the person to apologize for making a clearly insensitive comment? Or would you stand up and simply state that this kind of comment is clearly not appropriate for the conference? Would it change your mind if the conference were on probation for having problems of this nature in the past?

I sometimes wonder if I have become a bit of an apologist or an enabler for those who say inappropriate things, but don't mean to. Is it OK if they are of a certain generation? I generally try to have a thick skin and let things roll off my back, but am I making things worse for the women who come after me by not calling out a comment out when I hear it? And what about when you hear someone of your own generation make the same type of comment?

We've decided to form a girls network. A list of women in the field to invite for talks and nominate for awards, plenary lectures, etc. I used to think one of my mentors was a little over the top about her promotion of women (sometimes at the clear expense of equally deserving men), but maybe she is right and women still do need an extra push. Any thoughts?