An Engineering School With Half of Its Leadership Female? How Did That Happen?

Full vitae gender engineer

Getty Images

By Alec D. Gallimore

Often when I tell people that we have filled half of the top leadership positions at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering with women, I can almost see the unspoken assumption in many of their eyes: They think we did it by passing over better-qualified male candidates.

At the 10 U.S. engineering schools with the largest research budgets, women make up about 17 percent of the faculty. It’s always noticed when women constitute a higher-than-usual proportion of an engineering college’s leadership, but somehow we don’t make the same assumptions about talent when all of a school’s top positions are filled by men.

In our case, the numerical skew toward hiring women comes from expecting more — not less — of our top administrators. Being an accomplished engineer is still a requirement, but it is no longer sufficient. Our leaders also need to be able to see and articulate biases in the organization and propose ways to counter them. It turned out that the women who were hired as leaders in our latest round performed better on those measures.

That simple recruiting change has transformed our leadership. Women now occupy 13 of the 25 top faculty-leadership roles — department chairs, associate deans, and executive-committee members. That total is roughly the same as the number of women who held one of those positions in the college’s entire history before 2016.

This wave of female leaders has been building for years — well before my tenure as dean. Here I share four key approaches we followed to build that pool — with the hope that other leaders of male-dominated fields in science, engineering, and medicine may adopt the same tactics and see similar success.

Find out where your playing field isn’t level. The first step involves measuring your culture problem. Like many other universities, Michigan began examining — with the help of an Advance grant from the National Science Foundation — the campus culture and policies that led women to leave science and engineering, or never enter in the first place.

In 2001, Michigan’s new Advance program started with a climate survey that polled all faculty members. One of the telling outcomes was that female scientists and engineers at Michigan rated the university more negatively than did their male colleagues on nearly every climate measure, but particularly on whether their department had a "gender-egalitarian atmosphere."

While our climate ratings have improved since then for both women and men, a 2017 surveyshowed that the disparities remained. For instance, asked to rate the campus climate, women gave it a 3.1 (out of 5) in 2002 and a 3.4 in 2017. Meanwhile, men rated it at a 3.5 in 2002 and a 4 in 2017. So although women reported an improvement in the climate, the gap between how men and women perceived it had widened by 2017.

Those results highlighted one of the difficult aspects of understanding organizational climate: When you’re part of the dominant demographic, the challenges that underrepresented people face are often less visible to you.

Last year another campuswide survey revealed particularly stark results for professors in engineering. When faculty members rated whether they felt valued for their research, scholarship, and creativity — standard measures of excellence in academe — there was a 25-point gap between the perceptions of men and of women. In addition, 37 percent of women in the college reported experiencing gender discrimination. And a detail that the male leadership nearly overlooked: Almost half of the female engineers reported that they feared for their physical safety on the campus.

Female leadership can play a critical role in improving an organization’s responsiveness to such culture problems. When the college’s leaders received the latest climate results, no one raised a question about whether the women were just overly sensitive — as I have heard before in a room full of men. Instead, we immediately set to work on a plan that would (a) identify the causes of the gender discrepancies and (b) develop solutions.

Train your hiring committees to challenge unconscious biases. By now, there is a high degree of awareness in academe about unconscious bias — the shortcuts our brains take in deciding who is competent and trustworthy. People also view virtues and faults differently, whether we are assessing a man or a woman. But the goal in the hiring process is not just to spot unconscious biases — in ourselves and in others — but to challenge them.

Many of us have been to diversity training. But research shows that mandatory training often doesn’t change behaviors and can backfire. At Michigan, our Advance program homed in on unconscious bias in hiring, and began hosting workshops that delved into research studies on the topic.

In our engineering college, members of hiring committees are required to participate in these small-group workshops. They are designed with our research-oriented culture in mind, and focus on concepts that faculty members can apply immediately as they assess job candidates. For example, the workshops prepare our hiring committees to spot biases in letters of recommendation, such as an emphasis on a female candidate’s social skills at the expense of her technical accomplishments. We encourage committee members to question one another on their perceptions of applicants.

About 60 percent of our professors have received the training, and we believe that it has helped to reduce bias in the college at large. In academe, faculty members typically have a voice in the selection of their leaders. Our new female leaders have received those faculty endorsements.

To cultivate leaders, ensure equal access to mentors. An organization’s next leaders don’t come out of nowhere: Over years, or decades, they get experience and advice that propels them to the top jobs. But if men have more access to good mentors than women do, that only sustains the gender disparities of the past.

Our first climate survey, in 2002, confirmed that men in engineering tended to have more mentors than women did. To counteract that imbalance, we organized "launch" committeesmade up of established professors, including department chairs. They met monthly with new faculty members in their first year at Michigan. Today those "launch" meetings are standard practice in the college. Not only do they support new hires in that difficult first year, but later on, the mentoring relationships that result can help junior faculty members chart a path toward roles of greater responsibility.

For some challenges, women benefit most from the advice of other women — for instance, in handling sexist remarks in the lab or the classroom. Since 2013, a dean’s advisory council of female faculty members has met to discuss specific struggles and share solutions. We have since established a similar council focused on faculty of color.

Some women with decades of experience in engineering may hesitate to apply for the top leadership jobs, doubting that they would be treated fairly if they put themselves forward. In hiring leaders, it is important to actively recruit great candidates. As dean, I personally approached many professors — male and female — to encourage them to apply for open positions. Several women told me that this small gesture had sent the message that they would be taken seriously.

Redefine "merit" to include "taking inequality seriously." In academe we tend to evaluate merit based on academic pedigree: which institutions issued your degrees, which journals published your work, which conferences invited you to speak, which organizations honored your contributions to the field and the larger society.

Those measures contain their own biases. For example, membership in the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine is one of higher education’s top honors. The academies choose new members by seeking nominations from existing ones. As you might expect, the ranks are dominated by men and concentrated in a handful of universities.

Nonetheless, the women we promoted to leadership posts in our engineering college all competed on conventional measures of merit, and are recognized as outstanding in their own disciplines and beyond. Three are members of the National Academies.

But as history shows us, conventional measures won’t hasten change. They don’t produce leaders who make the field of engineering fairer to women and people of color, nor do they lead to the improvement of a culture that many women describe as deeply hostile.

So we added another layer to our hiring process for department chairs. Applicants had to submit a diversity plan and were evaluated on their record and their potential contribution to progress in diversity, equity. and inclusion. Some critics oppose requiring candidates to submit diversity plans and view them as political litmus tests.

But in our view, a diversity plan is a test to see whether an applicant can perform a central part of the job: changing a culture that suppresses talent. Both the men and women we hired suggested thoughtful diversity policies, but it turned out that, this time, experience may have given women the edge on this aspect of the job.

A leadership candidate who cannot see that the playing field is uneven has no hope of correcting it. Our goal is to become a college in which students, postdocs, staff members, and professors enjoy truly equal opportunities. Our leaders must recognize their own advantages and the barriers encountered by others.

Diversity is not a charitable cause. It’s about staying competitive. In many institutions, diversity is seen as a moral good rather than the solution to a problem. The result: Those institutions often miss out on talent and perspectives that would make them better at education and research.

Women will spot flaws in engineering designs, code, systems, and policies that are likely to go unnoticed by men who wouldn’t be affected by those faults to the same degree. They will move courses in new directions and identify opportunities that your institution might otherwise have missed. We have found that to be the case here as women pioneer areas of engineering research, invent technologies, and uncover biases in how we teach.

The strategies I have outlined are only part of the solution. Other challenges are difficult to resolve with organizational policy, such as the way that caregiving falls unequally on women and men. But with outstanding female engineers leading the college, I am optimistic that we can accelerate the cultural shift that will help make engineering genuinely welcoming to women.

Alec D. Gallimore is dean of engineering at the University of Michigan

Join the Conversation


Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.