February 2015

Featured Article

But You Don't Look Like an Engineer...

By Sheila S. Hemami and Marjolein C.H. van der Meulen

As female engineering professors, we often find that people do a double take when we tell them what we do.

"There are women?" they say. "In engineering?" When we both started our careers, in the mid-1990s, we thought women would be better represented in engineering schools by now. As the numbers at Cornell University and nationwide show, we've come a long way but still have further to go. In Cornell's College of Engineering, nearly 30 professors are women. This number corresponds to the national average of 12 percent. Together we have a combined career's worth of hiring experience in the two largest departments in our college.

Our experiences motivated us to pursue a National Science Foundation grant that led to the formation of the CU-Advance Center. The foundation's Advance program was started in 2001 to provide large, "institutional transformation" awards to universities for recruitment, retention, promotion, and advancement of women in the sciences and engineering. Through this activity we have met many more female professors and seen hiring practices across Cornell's other colleges. We both spend a lot of time advising faculty colleagues on how and why to hire diversely, and would like to debunk some of the common myths we frequently hear. While names have been omitted to protect the innocent, nothing is fictitious in this discussion.

Before tackling these myths, we'd like to stress that today's hiring determines the face of the engineering faculty for the next 30 years. What does that face look like in 2010? How do we want it to look in 2040? In 2050? And what will our students look like? These important questions require us to make strategic and diverse faculty hires as we move forward.

The Top 10 Myths About Hiring Diversely

10. "It's the recruiting committee's problem, not mine." Recruiting is an activity in which all faculty members should be continually engaged. We should be contacting up-and-coming graduate students and postdoctoral researchers at conferences and through professional networks. Developing a personal relationship with a young researcher as she matures over the course of several years can provide a substantial advantage when she is deliberating over faculty job offers. It also sends a positive message about departmental climate and collegiality; not all senior academics take the time or effort to reach out to young researchers.

9. "We don't have any female candidates because no women applied." To continue the theme of No. 10, a "search committee" is not an envelope- or attachment-opening committee. Its members should be actively using their department's database or creating their own by polling their colleagues locally and contacting others nationwide to cast as broad a net as possible.
8. "Hiring women is the problem of female professors." How many different ways can we say this: All faculty members should be actively engaged in the recruiting process.

7. "There are no women or underrepresented minority scholars in our field." Twenty years ago, and perhaps even 15 years ago, this statement was true in some fields. Today, it is simply not true. When challenged, we can and will identify outstanding diverse candidates. After all, our competitors do.

6. "Everybody knows the stars in the field, and there aren't any women."To quote from a 2009 New York Times article on the subject, "you just have to pay attention." In our own fields, we often hear there are no women, even from individuals whose collaborators include senior women. When we point these women out, the response is inevitably: "Oh, yes, I forgot about her ... and her. ... " This statement is as unacceptable nowadays as No. 7.

5. "She'll never come here, her husband is in (fill in the blank)." We never discuss a man's spouse until the offer is on the table, so let's treat women similarly. Never superimpose your own behaviors onto others by predicting how they might react to an offer.

Interview her, and when you make the offer, do everything you can to woo them both.

4. "She's signed, we got her!" We know too well that retention starts the instant an offer has been accepted. In recent years at Cornell we lost two tenured women whose partners were working elsewhere at the time we hired them. Six years later when the couples were still living apart, the women looked for other jobs and left. This challenge is not limited to women. Once a scholar has agreed to join the faculty, the focus must switch from recruitment to retention, which is equally important.

3. "We want to hire a man, but we'll also hire a woman if we get an extra faculty line." Searches should consider all candidates, and not relegate the hiring of women to "extra" or "bonus" hires. If the woman is good enough to hire, she's good enough for the open line.

2. "Money is tight; we can't afford to consider diversity." As we previously mentioned, all searches should consider all potential candidates. Considering diversity is not a search option to be used only when it's convenient.

1. "We need quality, not diverse, faculty members." We'd like to say that quality and diversity are completely unrelated characteristics. In fact, they are not. Numerous studies have shown that women are held to higher standards than their male counterparts, and in fact need to be more productive than men to be seen as equally productive. So the next time you are deciding between a male and a female candidate, a rational scientific decision would be to hire the woman.

As published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 29 January 2010, pg. A31, Vol. LVI, No. 20. © 2010 Hemami and van der Meulen. Reprinted here with permission from the authors.

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