Good Morning MRS!
This morning I attended one of my favorite events of the MRS meetings, the "Women in materials science and engineering breakfast", which included a breakfast and address from speaker Christianne M. Corbett. She co-authored the AAUW reports "Why So Few" and "Solving the Equation", two valuable studies that shed light on the startling lack of Women engineers in the United states. I highly recommend reading the reports for more specific details, but many key findings and recommendations were communicated during the breakfast.
Luckily, we appear to be moving past the days of common "explicit bias", or a conscious external attitude, of negativity toward women in the engineering workplace. However, the new problem faced by women and minorities is generally that of implicit bias, or a subconscious tendency to view them in a certain way. I do not pretend to be a psychologist, and so I won't go into much more detail than that except to say that I know implicit bias is real and widespread. Countless examples can be found of men and women assuming that a man is the engineer and the woman is the registered nurse. I feel these implicit bias' even in my own subconscious. However, implicit bias is generally the result of our environment, something like a mental shortcut mechanism. People assume that a woman is not an engineer because, statistically, (and sadly), there are very few women engineers! Its a mental shortcut that humans make anytime they adjust to things that they are used to, or prepare for things that are probable. While this may help to clarify the source of implicit bias, it cannot be used as an excuse for ignorance of implicit bias and the negative effects it has on women in STEM fields.
While it is valuable to think about the causes of the bias in society today, I am grateful that Christianne Corbett also had some recommendations for what we can do about it, with a few listed below.
- Acknowledge that gender bias exists, probably even in you! You can take this Harvard test to gauge your own implicit bias.
- When judging performance, be objective. Focus on the ability to perform a task, rather than physical attributes or gender.
- Be accountable. Hold others accountable. There should be zero tolerance for uncivil behavior in the workplace. Over time, this behavior can be rooted out.
- Be an ally. Be aware of the challenges faced by others in the workplace, and do what you can to be make things easier.
The things can all be done now, but I also believe that problems will always exist as long as there is such a large gender imbalance in the workplace. The long-term goal still simply must be to have a more reasonable percentage of women in STEM fields. The chart below shows that still roughly 12% of engineers are women, while they comprise roughly half the population. My sincere hope is that, through a process of changes in culture and schooling, these numbers converge and it is no longer assumed that a person will not be an engineer simply because she is a woman.
Source: "solving the equation"