February 23, 2009

Hey, where's all the geek women at?

The reading assignment for this week's journal club was the chapter in Talking About Leaving that discussed gender issues in engineering education. My first impression on this chapter was that I don't live in the same world as my female students. This chapter makes the very powerful point that the culture of engineering is overwhelming and that members of that culture (i.e. men) simply don't understand the issues that women in our discipline face. On one level I knew this, but this chapter really made me internalize what this means and internalize my own helplessness by simply being who I am.

At one level this is is quite depressing. I've spent a lot of time mentoring women in research, developed programs, and thought I knew what I was doing. After reading this chapter I realize much of what I had thought was helping might not have been.

This chapter brought up a debate that I have been having in my own head for quite some time. We all characterize the discipline of engineering in our own heads. Hopefully these mental images (schema) match with the actual practice of engineering. So here is the conundrum: how do you satisfy both the rigor of professional practice AND the need to develop students so their own self-image doesn't crash head on with the the professional image they need to adopt to succeed in the discipline.

So how does this chapter and what I've learned about the difficulties women in STEM disciplines face impact my practice of teaching? Honestly I don't know... I feel very torn as a man to try to bridge to women who are in science. I feel that since I can't effectively step outside my own culture (i.e. the predominately male engineering culture that is the problem) the odds of making a mis-step are quite high. In other words I can cause more harm than good through my own fumblings outside my culture. About the only thing I might do to improve my teaching is to team with a woman in teaching classes in which retention is an issue.

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