SF State sciences want boost in female faculty numbers
November 15, 2007 9:34 AM
When Elahe Enssani attended UC Berkeley in the 1980s, she was one of two women majoring in civil engineering. By the time she received her Ph.D., she was the sole female in a class of over 20 men.
“In college, women are isolated [in science]. You can be a lone wolf,” said Enssani, currently an associate professor of civil engineering at SF State.
While women like Enssani have appeared more in recent years, many feel there are still not enough women holding university positions in science and recently the topic has garnered national attention.
Last month, hundreds gathered on Capitol Hill for a science subcommittee hearing led by Congressman Brian Baird (D-Wa). Although it was not yet considering legislation, the subcommittee delved into the issue of cultural and institutional barriers, hoping to explain why women are still underrepresented at universities in science and engineering departments nationwide.
This hearing coincided with the release of an updated report by the University of Oklahoma and the Diversity in Science Association, which provided data on female faculty members at the top 50 university programs in the United States, as ranked by the National Science Foundation.
The study, first released in 2004, analyzed 2002 data. This year the report was updated to include data from 2005 and included more universities in the study.
According to the recent report, women made up 12.9 percent of all faculty in computer science in 2005, including associate, assistant, and full professors. In math, women made up 11.9 percent. In engineering, which was broken down into civil, mechanical, chemical, and electrical engineering, women made up 11.8, 8.6, 12.9, and 8.1 percent. Women in the biological sciences fared slightly better, making up 23.8 percent of the faculty members.
SF State, which was not included in the survey, has a higher percentage of female professors. Neither the college of science and engineering nor the Faculty Affairs office were able to provide official statistics of female professors and lecturers at SF State. However, based on fall 2007 rosters obtained from department offices, [X]press concluded the following: women made up 19 percent of the computer science faculty, 31.3 percent of the math faculty, 34.8 percent of the biological sciences, and 10.3 percent of the engineering faculty.
Reasons about why females are lacking in these academic fields varied on this campus.
“Starting from grade school, girls are less encouraged to go into science fields, not necessarily intentionally, but by the general mind-set,” said Sung Hu, professor and associate dean of SF State’s college of science and engineering.
“Girls from early on are steered away from math and science. It’s not right, but it’s been the tradition in some families or cultures,” he said.
“When I first graduated college in 1966 at Cornell University, I felt a tremendous amount of discrimination in general hiring,” said Mary Andrews, an SF State math lecturer. “Nowadays I don’t see discrimination, but there are no proactive solutions to solicit women. I’ve never seen any extra efforts to encourage women to enter teaching at the college level.”
When asked if she agreed with those who say women might be less inclined to enter university teaching jobs because they want to stay home and take care of their children, Andrews said, “I think that’s irrelevant. Whether or not a woman chooses to combine a career and a family is the same for a career in education or private enterprise. In one respect it might be easier for education because the hours have more flexibility.”
Though the report stated that a lack of female role models could be one of the main reasons why women do not enter these fields, some professors felt differently.
“It would be good if there were more female faculty members here, but it’s not necessary to find [female] role models in your field,” said Hui Yang, assistant professor of computer science at SF State. “There are role models everywhere, in different environments.”
Enssani thought the term “role models” was used too broadly.
“There are role models and then there are mentors,” she said. “Role models are for girls when they choose their careers. Mentors spend time with you, work with you, and promote you. Men have always had mentors, but women haven’t.”
Ying Chen, an SF State assistant professor of engineering, who attended Tsinghua University in Beijing and the University of Minnesota in the 2000s, said her college experience was different from Enssani.
“I was studying biomedical engineering [at Tsinghua University] and there were about an equal number of male and female students, and my adviser was a female professor, so gender wasn’t a matter,” she said.
However, like Enssani, she credits the low number of female faculty members to a lack of social connections.
“Networking and relationships are relatively more important in academia jobs, and there are not sufficient resources for female faculties in a male dominant environment, which I think is the reason why women prefer industry jobs for science and engineering,” she said.
Andrea Chen, 21, an engineering major at SF State said although her classes are predominantly male, it doesn’t really faze her.
“I kept hearing that companies and other places don’t want women to work for them, but I think it’s changed now,” said Chen.
When asked if there are any extra efforts to hire more female faculty, Hu said, “We try to encourage women and minorities to apply. At the end, it’s still whoever is the best. We don’t select based on gender or ethnicity.”
In order to increase numbers of female faculty members, Enssani suggests that universities create more mentorship programs for women, and for middle and high schools to encourage girls who have an aptitude for math, science, and engineering to pursue these areas.
“I’m calling on everyone in the [science] profession to take on this responsibility,” said Enssani. “I am pretty optimistic about the future.”
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