A women’s college offers lessons in promoting diversity and engineering identity.
Opinion by Andrew Guswa
Recent news reports have drawn attention to the underrepresentation of women in engineering and the challenges they face. But what lessons can we learn from a place where female engineers are the rule, rather than the exception? In a word: expectation.
Here at Smith—a selective liberal-arts college for women, and the first women’s college to establish an ABET-accredited engineering program—we expect engineers to be women. We expect women to lead design projects, work in the machine shop, and ask questions. It’s a powerful notion—one that goes beyond merely offering opportunities.
We all know this from our daily lives. I have the opportunity to go to the gym every day, but I am much more likely to follow through if my friend is expecting me to show up. More challenging are those opportunities that might threaten one’s identity or run counter to convention. I am an engineer; when I see a general invitation to a poetry discussion, I may decline—not because I don’t want to join but out of fear that I’ll be out of place. If, instead, my colleagues indicate that my contributions would be valued and that they expect me to join them, I will happily attend.
Expectation also shifts the burden from the individual pioneer to the established organization. Rather than requiring female engineers to persist in organizations where they face unconscious bias and stereotype threat, we should instead ask organizations to examine the barriers that are preventing greater participation. As engineers, if we observe an unexpected result in a system we have designed, we look more closely at the system: Why are we getting that unexpected result? Do we really understand all of the factors at play? The same scrutiny should be applied when attempts to encourage diversity fail to meet our expectations.
For example, a friend’s company recently underwent a reorganization. Although women composed roughly 20 percent of the senior staff, they were completely absent from the new leadership positions. When questioned about this, the CEO replied that his hands were tied, as no women had applied for the jobs. Unfortunately, such an unsatisfying response is too often accepted. This would not be the case if we had an expectation that our organizations and leaders reflect the diversity of our population. We would look closer. We would redesign the system.
While expectation may come more naturally in Smith’s gender-segregated environment, there are clear efforts that other institutions can undertake to promote diversity. Indeed, these approaches help support racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity and inclusion in our engineering program.
First, have and share clear expectations. Behavior becomes expected only if others know about it. Following the advice of social psychologist Claude Steele, we can help combat stereotype threat by articulating our high standards for our engineers while simultaneously conveying our belief—our expectation—that each of our students can meet them.
Second, display those expectations. While the current state of affairs may be dissatisfying, images in hallways, stories in alumni/ae magazines, and invited speakers can represent the desired, expected future. At Smith, rather than photos of historical engineering figures or works, our students are surrounded by images of fellow students—in the lab and shop, creating and designing. Students see themselves represented.
Finally, support early engineering-identity formation. Offering students opportunities to engage in the authentic practice of engineering early in their academic careers promotes formation of an identity as an engineer and sets up personal expectations. This has been shown to enhance persistence in both science and engineering. Our first engineering course, Engineering for Everyone, focuses on the design process and asks students to reflect on this question: What is engineering, and how does it connect with my identity? Indeed, as Smith’s recent commencement speaker, Oprah Winfrey, articulated: “Alignment between who you are and what you do is the real, true empowerment.”
Andrew Guswa is a professor of engineering and director of the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College.