Home » News » Women in engineering struggle with equity, happiness in the workplace, study suggests

Women in engineering struggle with equity, happiness in the workplace, study suggests

Nick Dvorscak / Lantern photographer

Female faculty members make up between 20 and 30 percent of science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields (STEM), according to department chair estimates, and a recent report shows workplace culture needs to change if this number is to increase.

Comprehensive Equity at Ohio State, a program funded by a 2009 National Science Foundation grant, focuses on the recruitment and retention of female tenure-track faculty in STEM disciplines. It released its findings that while female and male tenure-track faculty in STEM fields at OSU are given comparable salaries, lab space, startup funding and teaching assignments, female faculty are overall less happy than their male colleagues, and are also less happy than women in other departments.

Researchers focused on three departments within the STEM fields at OSU – the College of Engineering, the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Division of Natural and Mathematical Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Data used in the study about employment conditions came from the Office of Human Resources, department deans, the Office of Research and the Office of the University Registrar. Data used to measure faculty satisfaction was taken from the 2008 and 2011 Faculty Survey data, provided by the Office of Institutional Research and Planning.

Carolyn Merry, professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Geodetic Science, said workplace culture is to blame for the disparity in female faculty members’ satisfaction in STEM fields.

“They’re excluded from networks,” Merry said. “(Engineering) is very much an old boys’ network. Guys go out for lunch and don’t ask women.”

The report concluded that female faculty were overall less satisfied with professional relationships than male faculty, and that the largest gender gap in satisfaction was in informal networks.

Female STEM faculty in the three departments analyzed also expressed higher dissatisfaction with workload. Seventy-two percent of these women reported feeling the need to work harder to be perceived as a “legitimate scholar,” in the 2011 Faculty Survey.

“I personally felt I had to work two times as hard (as male faculty),” Merry said. “I think that’s universal in women, and especially in science.”

Joan Herbers, the lead investigator of the study, said female faculty in STEM also feel pressure to serve on committees and engage in other kinds of service.

“It’s things like how much time is spent with students, serving on university committees, serving on outside organizations and editing journals,” Herbers said. “Women spend 10 hours more on service each week. We know this probably leads to dissatisfaction because women feel they are asked to do a lot.”

Female faculty might also feel obligated by mentorships, as a relatively large number of undergraduates approach a small number of female professors seeking a mentor, Herbers said.

The difference in experience for female faculty members has prevented STEM departments from increasing the number of female faculty, Herbers said.

“It’s not that recruitment is not an issue, but retention is the main problem,” Herbers said. “They’ve done a great job recruiting women, but they’ve done a lousy job keeping them.”

Herbers said she is pleased STEM departments have addressed workplace inequalities in straightforward ways by equalizing financial and space resources, but said the more difficult steps lie ahead.

“Now they have the hard stuff to do,” Herbers said. “They have to change the way people behave. And scientists are not good at this – they’re not very good at understanding peoples’ behaviors.”

But for Herbers and others who worked on CEOS, changing behavior begins with increased awareness of differences in workplace culture.

Mary Juhas, associate dean of the College of Engineering Diversity and Outreach, said male colleagues do not purposely create a different workplace environment for women and might be unaware there is one.

“Men don’t realize there is a problem,” Juhas said. “It’s often not until our colleagues have daughters who are engineers (that they) start to realize the barriers and problems.”

However, Juhas said the culture remains unchanging.

“The culture is still chilly for women. Men own engineering – straight, white men.”

Thinking back to when she began teaching at OSU in 1988, Merry said she couldn’t help but question whether much has changed.

“I was the only woman faculty member,” she said. “I was teaching survey, thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’ I had to struggle alone then. In some ways I think women are still fighting that war.”

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.