October 11, 2013

Feminist Engineering Education

On October 10, 2013 I went to hear Professor Alice Pawley from Purdue University talk about her research on engineering education at the Electrical and Computer Engineering Colloquium at the U of I.

She has funding from the National Science Foundation to incorporate feminist theory into different educational research studies: an ADVANCE grant that looks at the experiences of women faculty in STEM who work within the promotion and tenure policies, and a CAREER grant called “Learning from Small Numbers” that uses storytelling by undergraduate engineering students to understand how engineering educational institutions are gendered and raced.

Mural about Food Justice at Growing Power, Chicago

Mural about Food Justice at Growing Power, Chicago

Alice Pawley is an associate professor in the School of Engineering Education with affiliations with the Women’s Studies Program and Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering. She has a B.Eng. in chemical engineering from McGill University, and an M.S. and a Ph.D. in industrial and systems engineering with a Ph.D. minor in women’s studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She runs the Research in Feminist Engineering (RIFE) group, whose diverse projects and group members are described at the website http://feministengineering.org/.

Pawley described her work as “critical research” on engineering, because it asks whether the current approaches are what we want to be doing.  Part of her critique is to examine the language we use to describe engineering, as well as the metaphors we use about career achievements. For example, she said the “pipeline” metaphor doesn’t work well for women because many of us have not taken a direct route on our career path. She joked, “If you leak out of the pipeline, you are gone, and if you get back into the pipe, you are a contaminant!” Another goal of her research is to make engineering more inclusive. (At the University of Illinois about 16% of the engineering students are female; nationally, it’s 20%; 15% of the students are of color, if I wrote these numbers down correctly as they zoomed by.)

She argued that the hidden or tacit rules that structure engineering that create a social and functional boundary that separates engineering from not-engineering. Consider: Who is solving engineering problems? Whose problems are considered worth solving? Who decides which problems to solve? Who benefits from problem-solving in this way? Pawley said that most engineers work on projects that are narrow in scope: commercial or industrial or military, but usually not domestic projects. Who makes small-scale things? Inexpensive, low-tech things? Some of these projects that might be considered engineering became “domestic science” or “home economics” and the domain of scientifically-minded women.

Pawley noted that very little research has been done in engineering on raced work, in part because of what is defined as “engineering.” One exception is Amy Slaton’s book Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line (Harvard, 2010). Rather than framing issues around UNDERrepresention and using metaphors like “chilly climate,” Pawley is using life history methods to describe career paths of women and people of color: She has found a variety of terms used to describe these trajectories and also generally positive concepts, such as garden or water. She stressed the need for a polyculture of mental models, an ecosystem of metaphors so that the metaphor does not limit options.

Engineering must counter its history (and that of many other disciplines) when white men made deliberate efforts to exclude: rules were set up in gendered and raced ways and these created entrenched organizational patterns that still shape our institutions.

Pawley cited the work of sociologists Joan Acker and Dorothy Smith as important to her research. Standpoint feminism helps discover the “ruling relations” that impact our teaching, scholarship and learning. (See Smith, Writing the Social, 1999) Gender and race are intersectional, not additive. (We can’t just assume women of color are like men of color.) We need to focus on consequences in meso- and macro-levels, not just micro levels, so that we understand the multiple ways in which educational systems affect individuals and their identity groups.

Thanks for visiting, Alice Pawley!

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