In 1919 two engineering students from the University of Colorado, Lou Alta Melton and Hilda Counts, decided to begin a student association for the most marginalized members of science and engineering: women. Until then, the female population was not allowed full memberships to student associations within their departments. These women decided to change the rules and start their own organization. They sent letters to several American universities asking for information on other women who were enrolled or had been in the past. Sadly, while several deans and professors did send them a list of the one or five women on their program, most of the responses were flat out discouraging.
“You ask for information or suggestions. I have only this to say, that I suspect the number of women who have undertaken general engineering courses is so few that you will hardly be able to form an organization.”
William G Raymond
Dean of College of Applied Science
State University of Iowa
You’d think that almost a hundred years later, when this information is being shown to the public, things would be different. And yet, I’m starting to suspect that we’ve only reached a fake notion of equality. We have gender studies in almost every institute of higher education. We have more women than ever before participating in scientific studies. Yet when we take a closer look, we realize that there is still a gross difference between genders in science and engineering degrees and programs. In the 2013-2014 academic year, out of the 108,969 bachelor’s degrees provided in the United States for engineering and engineering technologies, only 20,031 were given to women. It gets even more discouraging as we continue into postgraduates. On a doctorate level, only 2,297 women received degrees from the total of 10,117 students.
“We do not permit women to register in the Engineering School under our present regulations.”
William E. Mott
Dean of School of Applied Science
Carnegie Institute of Technology
There’s plenty of causes that have led to this, Joan C. Williams and Kate Massinger explained in their piece for The Atlantic how female students or doctoral candidates will lose funding or be left behind simply for being women. It can be due to sexual harassment that is never addressed or resolved by school officials or because women who become pregnant amidst during their research studies are seen as not taking their work seriously. There are several professors who switch to a different university due to sexual harassment claims yet never seem to have to worry about losing their livelihood. One prominent case occurred in 2016 when an academic from the University of Chicago resigned amidst several claims of harassment and inappropriate behavior. What surprised most people was how he had been vetted, considering his similar dismissal circumstances at two previous universities.
“In reply to your recent communication, I would state that we have not now, have never had, and do not expect to have in the near future, any women students registered in our engineering department.”
Associate Professor of Sanitary Engineering
The University of North Carolina
So, how can we promote true progress when sexism is present in the academic and scientific arena? This is when we’ve lost the facts and scientific method because it’s a game of liking or asserting power over someone. You’d think that this kind of thing doesn’t happen. I mean, these are the most objective disciplines in the world. Everything must be measured and quantified. Yet, when we all fail to realize that these are human mistakes and errors, we hit a wall. The studies might be quantifiable, but the people making them are still subjected to human judgment, prejudice, and bias.
“Now as regards to the formation of a separate engineering organization which you contemplate, I must confess that I am not in favor of such a move if you can get the young men in your institution to take the proper step which, in my opinion, consists in admitting you to full membership in the existing organization.”
Department of Civil Engineering
A year ago I was on a bus from London to Oxford, where I was studying my Masters degree. It was late. I was tired and my phone battery was dead. I closed my eyes to doze off but the three men behind me were talking so loud that I couldn’t fall asleep. I couldn’t help but listen to a bit of their conversation. As I pieced together what they were saying, I gathered that they were in the postgrad and doctoral Computer Science programs. The person they were making fun of was a female peer who had been on the program with them but had transferred to a different area. The following quote are the words I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget.
“I mean, she was nice to look at, so I didn’t mind having her around. But I just don’t think she has an analytical brain.”
This continued for the remainder of the bus ride. I wanted to say something to them. Not only did they trash talk their colleague, they repeated her name and last name numerous times. They made fun of how she switched majors because she felt it was the best decision for her. They ridiculed her summer appointment with the US Department of Education. The only praise she ever received was based on her looks. But I stayed silent, because I was one woman against three men who, based on the way they were speaking, were probably more respected and established than I was. What if I lost my place in my program because of this? I’m ashamed, but I don’t think I’m alone in this fear. I have a feeling that there’s women in higher education who realize what’s going on with their peers and also stay silent because they don’t want to be shunned as well.
But regardless, we can’t deny that, for the advancement and progress of science and technology, diversity is crucial. According to a study released by the Scientific and Technological Consultative Forum in Mexico, “A problem that requires resolution is to actually have female researchers. Another is that the research scope includes situations that affect women or diverse groups of women. These research studies can also be done through gender perspective that measures, evaluates, and proposes ways to attend to historical inequality.”
When we realize that the gender health and economic gap is still a part of our reality, we don’t have to look far to find the culprit. If there’s an unequal ratio of women in STEM fields, then the likelihood of research in issues faced by the female population alone goes way down. This also limits the amount of talented individuals out there who are finding solutions and cures to illnesses and everyday problems. This is not a gender issue, it’s a human issue.
So a century ago, a couple of students decided to congregate in order to form an association that would support its members as they continued their studies and work. Remember that this happened only a year after female suffrage was passed in the United States. While we can pretend to revel in our current freedom, we can’t deny that, as humans, we’re still systematically lagging behind in our attempts for equality. Men need to be held accountable in terms of harassment and slander of female colleagues. They need to be allies and supporters of diversity in academia and science. Women need to voice their opinions, speak out against violent and destructive behavior, as well as continue to fight against a system that seems hell-bent on keeping them out. Let’s prove all those deans and professors from 1919 wrong by working together rather than against each other.
Images by Rachel Lignotofsky