Overlooked: Female engineers struggle with lack of equity, but find solidarity with female professors


Daily file photo by Brian Meng

The Technological Institute, where many engineering classes are held. The McCormick School of Engineering’s tenure-line faculty is only 13 percent female.

Gabby Birenbaum, Campus Editor

This article is the first in “Overlooked,” a series that explores the experiences of underrepresented groups in different spaces on campus.

In the fall of her freshman year, McCormick sophomore Beth Prouty walked into her very first college class, looked around, and realized there was only one other woman in the room — the professor.

Prouty and her 15 male classmates were taking Design Thinking and Communication, commonly referred to as DTC. It’s an important class in the first-year engineering sequence for students to get experience in the shop, where they have access to tools and machinery. Having a female professor who was willing to call out the “implicit sexism” in the classroom setting and ensure all voices were heard saved Prouty’s experience.

“I was really glad to have a female professor for that class especially,” Prouty said.

Female engineering students experience the effects of being in a male-dominated space regularly, from being talked over during class to taking on extra work without recognition. The McCormick School of Engineering is 34.2 percent female for undergraduates, which is higher than the national average — the Society of Women Engineers says 21.3 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science go to women.

Still, situations like Prouty’s are common. In addition to being the only woman in a class of 16, she said her Peer Adviser group had three women and 14 men. And having a female professor to recognize achievements and actively work against biases and discrimination is not guaranteed for engineering students — women make up only 13 percent of tenure-line faculty in McCormick, lower than the national average of 17 percent, and 25 percent of instructional faculty. Those gender ratios are the worst among all Northwestern schools, graduate and undergraduate.

Katherine Johns, a McCormick sophomore and president of Northwestern’s chapter of SWE, said having a female professor has made a major difference in her life. Upon entering McCormick, she felt unqualified, particularly in computer science. Whenever she struggled or questioned her place in STEM fields, computer science prof. Sara Sood took the time to encourage her.

“There would be times when I would tell her, ‘I don’t feel like I’m smart enough to do this,’ and she’d say, ‘You absolutely are,’ and she’d (take) me through the process,” Johns said. “She’s been in my shoes as a female college student in a STEM field and so, it was just nice having her not only as a teacher and a professor, but as a mentor and a role model to look up to as well.”

As the president of SWE, Johns is an advocate for finding female mentors and friends in the male-dominated space of engineering, which can be “intimidating,” she said. SWE provides a space for women to be comfortable discussing their challenges and helps prevent them from switching out of engineering and STEM fields, which 32 percent of women do, nationally.

One important initiative SWE does is HeForSWE, where female engineers talk to their male counterparts about gender inequality in the hopes that they will stand up to their peers when they hear women being talked over or ignored. Johns said this problem is particularly prevalent in the shop during DTC, where stereotypes are enforced and women struggle to be heard.

“You have to go make a prototype of whatever your design is, and the classroom is much more progressive than the shop is, in terms of feeling comfortable and feeling equal,” Johns said. “The shop is very, ‘Let the guys have the tools. The girls can sketch it.’”

Johns had to confront her own ingrained sense of sexism when a man in her DTC group said they could leave the making of the prototype to him. When she came in the next day, the prototype was unfinished and poorly made, which meant she and another female team member had to fix his mistakes. She realized she had assumed he could use power tools simply because of his gender.

McCormick sophomore Jessie Bailey, an environmental engineering major, also said she struggled with gender biases in DTC. In a group with three men, she felt she had to work harder to earn their respect.

“I don’t want to make generalizations,” Bailey said, “but it was definitely harder for me to get my ideas (across) and gain their respect than it was for each other.”

In her all-male DTC group, Prouty had the opposite problem — her team members barely did any work and were “loafing off of (her).”

Prouty put in extra hours to ensure the work got done, often in the middle of the night. In doing so, she fell into a trap her female professor told her was common.

“Women oftentimes will feel like if work isn’t getting done, it’s their responsibility to pick it up and make sure that things get done,” Prouty said her professor told her. “This isn’t just women, but the fact is, when women do it, they often won’t get the recognition. The whole team will get recognition, but in reality, it’s just the one person doing a majority of the work.”

When she discovered the problem, the professor held a class-wide discussion about implicit sexism in the workplace and told Prouty it was not her responsibility to do her group members’ work, even if that meant it would not get done. While Prouty initially didn’t take the advice well, continuing to sneak into the shop at night to ensure her group met deadlines, she realized the effects of her professor’s talk when her team members finally started to meet expectations and respect her more.

She said she does not believe change would have happened if her professor had not discussed gender roles with the class. In her experience, no male professor has ever stopped to discuss gender stereotypes or ensuring class experiences are equitable.

Johns said she wishes McCormick would hire more female faculty, especially women of color.

While the school has remained ahead of the national averages in gender ratio, progress in hiring female faculty has slowed in recent years. There were 20 tenure-line female faculty in 2009 — a decade later, only four have been added, according to Northwestern’s Institutional Diversity and Inclusion reports.

Prouty said she wishes McCormick would facilitate dialogue about gender biases and stereotypes in classrooms. Bailey said at the very least, McCormick needs to recognize the disparity between men’s and women’s experiences.

“They need to understand what’s going on,” Bailey said. “I don’t think that they fully acknowledge the difficulty that it takes of being a woman in McCormick.”

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Twitter: @birenbomb

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