Women take over academics nationally, but not at CMU

Claire Morgenstern Sep 11, 2006

Across the country, women are excelling more than men in higher education. Currently, women make up 58 percent of the nation’s college students, according to a July 9 article in The New York Times.

So why has Carnegie Mellon’s undergraduate female population been hovering at 40 percent for the last several years?

Though U.S. News & World Report’s 2007 edition of “America’s Best Colleges” ranked Carnegie Mellon eighth on its list of best undergraduate engineering programs at schools with doctoral programs, the university had the second-lowest percentage of women out of the first 20 schools on the list. In other words, aspiring female engineers are choosing to enroll at competing universities more often than they are at Carnegie Mellon.

This scenario contrast strongly with national and local data. A special report from 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education found that in 2001–2002, American women received a greater share of the doctorates earned in the United States than men.

And according to a March 21 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, women lead four of the region’s universities — Carlow University, LaRoche College, Seton Hill College, and Washington & Jefferson College — and are CEOs of five UPMC hospitals.

Professors and administrators aren’t sure why Carnegie Mellon defies these trends.

“The requirement that you commit to a college before you come is less attractive to women than men,” said Allan Fisher, former dean for undergraduate computer science education and co-author of Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. This publication summarizes the findings of Fisher’s research project titled “Women in Computer Sciences — Closing the Gender Gap in Higher Education.” Fisher referred to the application process in which prospective students must apply to one of the specialized colleges within the University.

“That might be linked to the fact that, on average, women tend to change majors slightly more than men,” Fisher said.

Indira Nair, vice-provost for education, speculated that the reason might be socioeconomic. She explained that, the higher a student’s socioeconomic status, the more she strives for a “big name school.”

“Women who are let in here are already outstanding in performance,” she said. Such students, she said, will be accepted to almost any school to which they apply, and will attend the one they think has the most impressive reputation — which is not always, she believes, Carnegie Mellon.

The presence of female faculty on campus may be a third reason. As of last fall, the proportion of female faculty on campus was just 29.2 percent, according to the Carnegie Mellon Factbook 2005–2006 prepared by Institutional Research and Analysis.

However, this statistic seems to be in line with the national trend. According to the 2004 special report by The Chronicle, in 2001–2002, more than 70 percent of professors teaching at top research universities like Carnegie Mellon were male.

The Chronicle faulted research universities in particular for hindering women faculty. “The higher up on the academic prestige ladder a university is, the fewer women it usually has in tenured faculty positions,” the report stated. “While the nation is doing a good job of turning out women with research doctorates, the top 50 institutions in research spending are not doing such a good job of hiring them.”
Carnegie Mellon’s data supports this claim. In 2005, women made up only 22.4 percent of the university’s tenure stream faculty.

Without a strong network of female faculty with whom female students can identify, the number of female students may continue to stagnate.

However, Fisher has seen this scenario occur in reverse. Fifteen years ago, he said, there was one female student in computer science for every two or three men. Currently, the ratio is closer to one to one. Meanwhile, he admits that the change among faculty has been slower.

Nair remains positive, citing the increasing numbers of women faculty across all departments as one area in which the university has made significant progress.

She also speculates that, for male faculty members, having teenage daughters contributes to a greater understanding about how to treat women in the university’s male-dominated fields.

Part of the difficulty in recruiting female students in science and engineering, for all universities, she said, is that there are just so few interested to begin with.

“There is self-selection. This is a very narrow group,” Nair said. “It’s not about competence or ability — it is about what you care about.”

Having received a doctorate in physics herself, Nair understands what women are looking for in a science department.

“Women look for connection — understanding the work in a social context and connecting to the social good,” she said. “Women bring to [science and engineering] a different ethos.”

This theory has trickled down to some Carnegie Mellon faculty members. Candice Gesecki, a junior in chemical and biomedical engineering, wrote in an e-mail that one of her female professors explained why girls pick some engineering fields over others. Her professor told her females are more attracted to chemical or biomedical engineering because these fields have more “global connections and more humanitarian opportunities.”

Fisher sees the situation in his line of work slightly differently. “It’s about creating an environment for women to be computer scientists,” he said. “It boils down to making a broader picture than the traditional hacker stereotype.”

Both Nair and Fisher point to a variety of recent actions the university has undertaken to make the sciences more accessible to women. Fisher said the Office of Admission rebalanced its admissions criteria to weigh applicants’ leadership abilities and other personality factors more heavily, areas in which women are generally more skilled.

“As far as work ethic goes, the majority of my peers are incredibly hard-working, regardless of their gender,” stated Anne Steinhardt, a senior engineering and public policy major and president of the Society of Women Engineers, in an e-mail message. “[But] I do feel that all the women in my major are more social and outgoing than the men.”

Fisher added that the engineering school changed its curriculum to allow students to mix required courses with those focusing on applying and experimenting engineering principles, giving women the practical connections they seek.

Nair explained that the computer science department changed its admission requirements to no longer require prior programming experience. The year after the change was made, Nair said, applications increased 38 percent.

The efforts seem to have worked. “People always talk about how women will have to be harder workers to get equal treatment, but I haven’t noticed that at all,” Steinhardt stated. “Professors just seem to learn my name first because I’m one of the only women.”

Gesecki believes there is still room for improvement.

“I think Carnegie Mellon could do a better job of putting a female face on some of the majors. I know that if I was a freshman, and I was about to talk to a female electrical engineer and see that it’s not just an all-male department, maybe that would have spurred me to check out some ECE classes or learn more,” she stated.

Both Fisher and Nair also credit cultural changes over time with making it easier for women to excel.
“It’s a combination of what’s been going on in society at large and intentional efforts by the university,” Fisher said.

Nair agreed. “Women feel more included, feel that their voices are being heard,” she said. “Women here are doing extremely well.”