Conversations about gender in engineering

Last week I sat in on OIE, or the Olin Introductory Experience, a course required of our first year students that is designed to “cultivate critical and creative thinking skills, self-reflection, teamwork, leadership, and interpersonal relationships with peers, faculty, and staff.” It’s coordinated and taught by my amazing colleague, Adva, in Student Affairs and Resources.  She is accompanied by different Topic Teams of Olin staff, faculty and students who have a passion for giving back to the Olin community and contributing to the success of new Oliners. The topic of OIE was Teaming and Feedback and featured two faculty members who teach in one of the quintessential Olin courses, Design Nature (DesNat), Debbie Chachra and Tim Sauder. Debbie and Tim spoke candidly about how they build the teams in DesNat and the highs and lows of teaming, providing tips and strategies for scaffolding a strong team experience. I found myself in the back of the room nodding, clapping and thinking “YAS!”

Can I get an amen?

This particular nugget carried particular weight for me (I’m paraphrasing): “Don’t spoil this jewel you have been given of attending an engineering school with equal numbers of male- and female-identified students.” If you didn’t know, Olin is balanced when it comes to biological sex (woo hoo!) compared to 19.3% of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded to women nationally.1 and 2 Yes, this is a point of pride for Olin but it’s also an incredible opportunity for all students, regardless of their sex and gender identity. Learning about and having experience in working on gender diverse teams prepares all Olin students to act and advocate differently. This is true both for their college years and in the engineering world they will enter upon graduation which will absolutely NOT be as diverse as the environment here: women make up 15% of the engineering workforce.1

As part of our commitment to advancing women in engineering, back on September 30th we hosted a Women’s Open House at Olin, where an Olin Alumna, Ellen Chisa, shared some fabulous pieces of advice (I have another blog post coming on Ellen’s advice- stay tuned!). Debbie was part of an Academic Life panel with a couple other faculty as well as our awesome Dean of Student Affairs, Rae-Anne Butera. One of the final questions we received that day was: “So what are you doing to prepare your female students for a workforce that will be shockingly different?” Here’s a summary of that answer, plus a few tidbits from follow up conversations I’ve had since:

  • We talk: in OIE mentioned above, through feedback sessions in class, in the Gender and Engineering co-curricular run by more amazing Olin folks: Deb, Alisha, and Caitrin
  • More talking: panels hosted by Post Graduate Planning (PGP) on women in the workforce
  • We model: faculty and staff model behavior, support and advocacy
  • We call each other out: part of modeling is also being respectfully vigilant about calling each other out when gender bias rears its head. For example: When I arrived at Olin, I was completely unaware of my use of “you guys” or “those guys” when referring to groups of people. A male identified colleague respectfully called me on it at the end of a meeting. He acknowledged that I probably was unaware that I was doing it (true: I wasn’t aware) and in a really wonderfully disarming way said he had adopted “y’all” despite being from Connecticut. For a while after that, when I’d be about to say “you guys”, his voice would pop in my head. Now, I never say it and I’m grateful he spoke up.
  • We employ a Do Learn model: our students learn by doing, which develops knowledge, skills, mindsets, and confidence that serve our alumni well when they’ve graduated from Olin.   

Have we figured it all out? No. Are we all perfect every time? No. But we frame teaming and all of the complications that go along with it, like recognizing, preventing and addressing gender bias, as a learning experience. And if we can graduate 84 better and more aware teammates, little by little, we can hopefully make an impact on the engineering workforce.


2The faculty acknowledged yesterday and I will acknowledge here: we recognize that gender is not binary. Our community supports people of all gender identities and expressions. There are times that we speak in the binary (man/woman) when it comes to sex and gender because research on gender-bias against women is well researched and documented. A similar body of research is still emergent when it comes to people who are gender-queer or gender non-conforming. 

Posted in: Emily, All Admission Staff Blogs