Equality in Science and Engineering

I spend a fair bit of my time thinking about equality in science and engineering.  There are two areas that I mainly ponder – education and workforce.  The big question that I really ask myself all of the time is “what can I do about these issues?”  It is a very hard question to answer.

I think that on a very small scale, we can all do things like recognize bias and try to fight against that bias.  As an educator, I can point out these issues to students and try to raise awareness. But on a larger scale, it is much more difficult. People have been trying to figure out what to do to make science and engineering less dominated by white males for a long time, so what can we do about it?  I don’t really have the answers, but I do think about it.

I listen to a LOT of podcasts, and some of them have episodes that focus on these issues. For example, I just listened to an episode of Planet Money on the fact that there used to be a ton of women who programmed computers back in the 60s and 70s. In the early 80s when home computers were first being introduced, they were considered more toys, and so were marketed as toys, but were aimed at boys and dads, since the manufacturers thought that the games that they could play on these computers were more boy oriented. This got boys into getting computers at an early age in the 80s and when those boys went to college, they had a LOT more experience with computers than girls of the same age. This led to the extreme dominance of men in the tech industry.  Here is a plot that they included on the podcast website:

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They also noted something that is discussed a lot – men tend to be much more confident about things that they know nothing about, while women tend to admit that they know nothing about the subject. Just ask my wife about this. This leads to men dominating discussions and getting more opportunities, since they are more willing to go out on a limb. So, when you have a room full of people, with a few boys who know a lot about computers (and make everyone aware of this) and a bunch of girls and boys who don’t know anything, the girls think that they are in over their head (and drop out), and the boys just soldier on.

Here are two stories from my experiences, one quite recent and one from a long time ago:

When I was a freshman in high school, I started taking French, since we were required to take a foreign language. I basically failed this class, so I switched to a computer programming class. I was the only freshman in the class, but I was probably one of the only kids who actually had a computer at home. I had been programming for over a year by then, so I knew just about everything in the class. I was the kid who raised his hand for every question that the teacher asked. Yes, I was that kid. That changed when a bigger kid punched me in the stomach one day because I was too smart. I learned my place.  Intimidation works.

I have been serving on some committees that are pretty important for our community, and are filled with people who have very strong opinions.  One of the issues that I know that I have is that I have a tendency to be one of the first people to speak up about things.  In these committees, I have a very hard time actually providing any sort of opinion at all, since there are many people who are much more vocal than I am. In addition, there is a lot of ignoring of other people’s opinions and downplaying their ideas. This is not an environment for the timid.  I don’t think that many people think of me as timid, but in some of these committees, I am really not comfortable at all. You really have to be a super-Alpha to be heard and acknowledged. And you have to walk the knife edge of assertive versus aggressive. This is the type of environment that tends to drive women away from science. And I can really see why.

I very much like to listen to the Freakonomics podcast also.  They tend to discuss ideas that really go against the grain of societal norms.  They did two episodes on gender inequality and bias recently.  One that looked at the inequality in pay between men and women. This episode argued that if you compare apples to apples, women do tend to get paid the same as men for the same work.  But, it is difficult to find apples to apples comparisons, since women tend to get orange jobs and men tend to get apple jobs, and that is the cause of the pay gap. In another episode, they discussed gender barriers for women into fields that are dominated by men. It was somewhat depressing, but is a very important episode.

I have also been listening to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, who I might argue is one of the smartest people on the planet.  I very much like the way he thinks about problems, which I guess makes me bias.  Hmmmm.  Anyways, he just started a podcast a couple of months ago and it is very interesting. The first episode talks about how we as a society have a tendency to make small concessions to underrepresented people, and then take a huge step backwards because we are so proud of ourselves for being so forward thinking. He argued that we are sort of doing that with Barrack Obama right now – we are so proud of ourselves for electing a black president that people feel like we have moved beyond race and everything is great.  Which, clearly, it is not. There is also an implication that if we elect Hillary Clinton as president, we will end up not electing another female president for a long time.

The latest three episodes talk about education and the barriers into higher education for poor people.  His thinking is that the United State is supposed to be a country in which anyone from anywhere can rise up and become extremely successful. He argues that this is not true, because the education system is stacked against poor people.  I completely agree, so it was definitely a bit of preaching to the choir.  But anyways, here are one sentence summaries of the episodes: (1) poor minority kids have a huge number of obstacles to get over in order to even get on a level footing as rich white kids; (2) one of the reasons that tuition at some universities is raising is that they are paying more financial aid for poor students, while at other universities the tuition is raising to pay for gourmet food and really, really nice dorms, which disadvantages the universities who are trying to actually help poor people; and (3) universities are getting huge donations and have monstrous endowments; but many elite universities are using those to attract the cream of the crop as opposed to the poor and disenfranchised. These are all very compelling episodes and if you are involved with higher education, you should really listen to them.

Clearly, these are important issues to me, and I will probably talk about them more. Stay tuned!




About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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