Parity May Not Equal Equality

Discussions about increasing the representation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professions and educational programs often focus on the numerical representation. But mathematical parity does not necessarily equal equality, writes Debbie Chachra at .  Chachra is an associate professor of materials science at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts—which, she writes, has been “committed to a gender-balanced student body since the first class entered in 2002.”  Women constitute 50.1% of the student body.

But despite initially believing that they “had ‘solved’ the gender problem in engineering,” Olin College’s faculty members came to see that “the experience of our female students was markedly different from that of their male counterparts,” Chachra continues. The problem was not “[o]vert sexism and discrimination,” which are verboten at Olin College. Rather, “a host of small and subtle” things made women feel less welcome in engineering than men. In a first-year engineering design course, for example, the faculty noticed that “men were more likely to do ‘engineering’ tasks (like CAD [computer-aided design] or building prototypes), and women were more likely to prepare for presentations or coordinate team members.”

Olin College has begun to counter this type of gender disparity by having students explicitly discuss each participant’s goals and roles before undertaking projects. “It’s not a coincidence that the action that we took to improve the learning experience for women turned out to be beneficial for all our students,” writes Chachra. “Initiatives that are responsive to the experiences of members of a particular group often end up benefiting everyone, from parental leave policies to curb cuts.”

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