INSIGHT Into Diversity recently spoke with three female deans of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) schools. These women provided insight on the critical need to increase the number of women in STEM professions and improve math and science education for our nation’s youth.
Maria V. Kalevitch, PhD, is the dean of Robert Morris University’s (RMU) School of Engineering, Mathematics, and Science, as well as a professor. She began as the only female faculty member, went on to become the founding chair of the science department, and is now the school’s first female dean. She also serves on the university’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and is a member of the Women in Engineering Leadership Institute and the New York Academy of Sciences, among other organizations.
Debra Larson, PhD, PE, is dean of the College of Engineering at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), San Luis Obispo, where she is also a professor. She began her career as a civil and structural engineer and went on to serve in various positions at Northern Arizona University prior to joining Cal Poly. She also provides national service to the American Society for Engineering Education and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.
Nada Marie Anid, PhD, is the first female dean of the New York Institute of Technology’s (NYIT) School of Engineering and Computing Sciences. In this role, she oversees nearly 80 faculty members and 3,500 students at five NYIT campuses. She currently holds leadership positions in several organizations, including the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the American Society for Engineering Education.
A recent study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed a 2-1 preference for female candidates for tenure-track positions in university science departments, suggesting that women are no longer at a disadvantage when applying for these positions. Has this been your experience? Have you ever, personally, felt like an employer discriminated against you based solely on your sex?
Kalevitch: First of all, I’m very excited to see that female candidates are up for tenure-track positions; it is well deserved. In our science department, when I started it 10 years ago, I was the only woman. We now have 14 women, and we are growing. I am a very optimistic person. Certainly, more things need to be done to encourage women to be in sciences and engineering, but I think we’re making progress.
At the end of the day, people will evaluate you based on your merit, and I think that’s important to remember.
Larson: In terms of overt discrimination, I can identify two situations from my past, but one happened a long time ago, when I first entered the profession as a civil engineer. The second time was when I was in the academy, and I was up for tenure and promotion. I’ve been in the profession a long time, close to 40 years, and the fact that I started as an engineer well before companies and policies were in place around discrimination, I think it’s pretty interesting that I’ve only had two overt experiences.
In terms of subtle things that happen, it’s all the time, and I suspect that every engineer who looks or acts different experiences these subtle slights. I think that’s something that we as a society are beginning to understand better and beginning to work on.
This can also be tricky. I have seen colleagues interpret, perhaps, a less-than-positive performance review or not being the preferred candidate for a new job opportunity as a decision based solely upon gender. I think this is a really tough and gray area for all diverse individuals coming into this field … because you’re not always successful at every step. You may not always get every opportunity that you think you should because of performance or because of qualifications — having nothing to do with gender. One just needs to try to be really clear about the expectations and the qualifications to help strengthen the objectivity of the process.
Anid: My background is engineering, so we don’t see the same ratio that you would see in science, especially the life sciences — in biology, for example, where the majority now of graduates are women. In engineering, nationwide, the percentage of [women] graduates at the bachelor’s level is 15 percent. So by the time you get to the master’s or PhD level, you will never see this … 2-1 ratio. I’ll give you an example. We have seven faculty positions in engineering here at NYIT. We bring in two candidates for each position, so that’s 14. So far, we have only interviewed four women, and in terms of minorities, there’s only one minority in the 14. So that’s the ratio that we’re seeing, and I think it’s reflective of what you’ll see in other engineering schools.
For the second part [of the question], … what I hear from female students and sometimes from minority students is that there’s always an implicit bias. And there are studies now being done to identify this bias and workshops to alert employers or anyone in the workplace to this bias, because people may think something or say something without realizing that it has a connotation of discrimination.
In your experience working in higher education, have you found that men and women tend to learn in different ways, especially when it comes to subjects like math and science? If so, do you think these differences are taken into account in most classrooms? How can professors better address the educational needs of both men and women in science and math courses?
Kalevitch: I think we all learn differently. People are unique, and there are certain ways that we know, certain categories, that people learn best. But overall, we all learn differently. And very often, faculty not only have different learners in the classroom, but they also often have students who come from different backgrounds. You might have people who are high academic achievers and people who are closer to the lower range of achieving. This is a task of the faculty to unite the class in the learning experience to make sure that different [learners] are accommodated, and it’s not an easy task.
Larson: I myself have not experienced those differences with students I’ve taught. However, I think students today are very different from students of yesteryear, say 20, 30, 40 years ago. I think students of today have grown up with a different way of learning, a project-based kind of learning environment, collaborative learning — relying on technology for the delivery of technical knowledge and content. And I think that if there are differences, it’s less about gender and more about long-term change in the way the entire student body is experiencing their education and how they come to us at the university with these very different sets of learning expectations.
Anid: From my experience as an educator, but also from the research done on this matter, collaboration and teamwork work more for women and minorities. Their eyes light up when you tell them “do this in a group.” They like to talk about problems and come up with a solution or do homework as a group. That’s a plus and a value that diversity brings, and that’s how they learn better.
Other students want to be on their own. So what we’re doing now is mixing styles, we’re mixing teaching styles that fit the learning styles of all groups. … It’s all a matter of engagement. If you don’t engage them, they drop out.
Women make up 48 percent of the U.S. workforce, yet they only represent 24 percent of all STEM jobs, according to 2009 data from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration. And underrepresented minorities make up less than 15 percent of the STEM workforce, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2011. What value do you believe women and minorities bring to STEM professions, and to what do you attribute their low numbers?
Kalevitch: I strongly believe that diversity is essential to the success of society, and diversity of ideas and diversity of perceptions and knowledge is always an advantage — because innovation occurs when people think out of the box, when people collaborate, when multiple opinions are brought together in one room. So the value, I think, is obvious.
And the low numbers can be attributed to many things. It could be education, it could be mentorship, it could be networking opportunities, it could be the general support system. There are many aspects that can contribute. A lot of them are well-known and discussed in the industry and … we are all thinking about what we can do to increase that number and make sure that diversity of people and ideas flourish.
Larson: I think that it’s telling that we as a community haven’t moved beyond the old ideas of talking about value regarding women and minorities. … People come to engineering because they want to be engineers. They don’t want to be a female engineer; they don’t want to be a Latino engineer. They want to be an engineer. So we have to help change the conversation so that we’re not questioning the value anymore, but we are in fact recognizing that … everybody brings value to STEM professions.
I think there are many reasons [for the low numbers], and a lot of these reasons have been studied in great detail and show up quite frequently in literature: a lack of role models; familiarity with the work of that profession; and awareness of that work, its accomplishments, and the importance of it. I think that the course of study is not well-connected to the actual work of the profession and that the profession itself doesn’t mentor well. I think part of it is that our strength as engineers is our weakness, meaning that we are quite task-oriented, and we’re less social and people-oriented. So we get the job done quite well from a task perspective. I think that is actually part of the trouble around trying to invite diversity into the profession, because there are these cultural and community hurdles that we have to get through.
Anid: They add value because they bring different experiences, and with the varied experiences, they bring a different solution to the table, and that’s supported by many studies. … That engenders a creative solution.
[I attribute their low numbers] to role models; that’s the number one reason. Historically, women were not allowed in colleges, so we have to put everything in perspective. They weren’t allowed to have an education, and then once they started attending college, they enrolled in the humanities. They were forbidden to be in engineering schools or similar professions. All that leads to smaller numbers of women and minorities in these fields, in high-level positions. When you don’t see [people like you in these fields] growing up, it doesn’t occur to you to become that person. You need role models, and that’s what we [at NYIT] are trying to do more of by organizing minority-only events and girls-only events — to expose them to that possibility, that this is who they can become. They have to feel at ease, and it helps if they are in an environment with just girls or just minorities. There are many programs supported by corporations and organizations that are doing that, because that’s how we can make a dent and move the needle.
Where do you see the greatest need or the greatest opportunities in STEM fields now and in the near future?
Kalevitch: I think STEM became so interconnected with our everyday lives that people often do not think that [certain things] relate to science, technology, or mathematics, but they do. And the more educated we are in STEM disciplines, the more advanced our society will be, both on the technological side and on the humane side.
One of the degrees that I think is of great interest is biotechnology. Another degree that is of interest is bioinformatics; it’s a combination of molecular biology and information technology. This is something that has great application, not just in the world of STEM, but also in the medical field — which is a part of STEM.
We have to consider that our population is aging, so what can we do to help with that process? … Degrees that have a combination of health aspects and technology aspects are really on the horizon and are rising. Robotics, drone technology, and anything related to computer cyber security are also on the rise. These are the areas that have already grown and will continue to grow.
Larson: I think the opportunities for any young student considering a career today — especially a career in science, technology, engineering, and math — are going to be tremendous. That’s because there’s been such exponential growth in technology. The future of humanity and the future of America are going to rely on our ability to capture and build upon the tremendous opportunities that technology is providing. When I say technology, I’m talking broadly about insights from math and science, and not just technology from an engineering perspective.
There are the easy things you can identify, and those are information technology, micro-nano technology, advanced manufacturing, and materials. The computing- related fields are the hottest right now for us. That’s software engineering, computer science, and computer engineering, and it’s overlapping into electrical.
The other thing that I think is really interesting is how it’s so much easier today for a student or an individual to create their own startup business, and the mechanisms and the opportunities are so much more readily available today — partly because of the Internet, partly because of these platforms that provide for easy collaboration and for very sophisticated work to be done quickly in an electronic environment.
Anid: Technology, the fascinating and booming field of robotics, and anything that has to do with big data and technology companies — like Google and Facebook — should be an opportunity for us to transform our status quo, using the fact that the new generation is growing up with these technologies as a way of moving them into STEM. We’re using this as an opportunity to entice them into STEM.
The area that is seeing the most need is computer science. We don’t have enough computer scientists. I’m not saying programmers; I’m talking high-tech computer science — and machine learning. Now we have machine-to-machine, artificial intelligence … and it’s affecting everything, not just our phones, but it’s affecting our cities, our energy, our manufacturing plants. That will have no end. Also, big data and data science — that’s where I see a need, and that’s where the biggest demand is if you look at U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [data]. That’s what we’re seeing reflected in our enrollment; computer science is experiencing a spike.