President's Message: Do it for your daughters

 

The "serial" – a story published in installments – has a motley history. It started as a scam when, following the Stamp Act of 1712, newspaper publishers in England padded the news with reprints of portions of novels to create a document long enough to count as a pamphlet (untaxed) rather than as a newspaper (taxed). Serials came into their own with Dickens's Pickwick Papers, the first major novel to see first light as a serial, followed by such illustrious novels as Eliot's Middlemarch, Hardy's The Return of the Native, Conrad’s Lord Jim, and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Even poetry – Tennyson's Idylls of the King – appeared as a serial. In the 20th century, serials became associated with pulp and science fiction and, as The Shadow Knows, with weekly radio shows. Most serials proceed from beginning to end. Only the truly courageous, such as George Lucas, start their serial with Episode IV, move on to V and VI, and then 22 years after starting, issue Episode I.

In my previous column, I looked at the problem of why there are so few women in engineering in general, electrical engineering in particular, and hence in signal processing. In this column, I'm going to consider two more aspects of the question:

It matters: The case for increasing the number of women in engineering / electrical engineering / signal processing can be made from several different perspectives. I’ll talk about two of them: the business case and the personal case.

I didn’t have to do much work to identify the components of the business case: hundreds of major corporations have done it for me. Gene Frantz, of Texas Instruments, summarizes the argument: "We are committed to making a diverse workforce part of our competitive advantage." In fact, according to a 1998 Yankelovich Partners Poll, 85% of the top executives at large- and medium-sized companies in the U.S. believe that increasing the employment of minorities and women makes their businesses more competitive. By the end of 1997, over 80% of Fortune 500 corporations in the manufacturing sector had initiated or planned to initiate diversity programs, and had spelled out their reasons for doing so:


"We should try to increase the number of women in signal processing."
"Yes, but we shouldn’t sacrifice quality."

Ann Redelfs, of the San Diego Supercomputer Center, points out just how questionnable this view is. Implicit in the "Yes, but we shouldn’t sacrifice quality" reply is the assumption that the demographics are something like this (where, in the interests of diplomacy, the groups under consideration are labeled MAJ, for "Majority Group in Signal Processing" and MIN, for "Minority Group in Signal Processing"), with the placement of the rectangles representing the "above and below" relationship of the two populations to the "Average Quality" line:

The workforce utilization view gives a different picture. Projections in the U.S., Canada, and Australia all estimate that women will account for approximately two-thirds of new entrants into the workforce by the year 2000. It is in engineering’s best interests to attract and retain the best possible people, regardless of gender. However, if the field is perceived as unwelcoming to women, most women will go elsewhere. In business terms, there is an opportunity cost for any field that excludes a large fraction of the pool of potential employees based on gender rather than on ability.

So the business case is fairly clear: market, productivity, quality, and workforce all point to the need to become more diverse. Complementing the business view is a more personal view – i.e., one that focues more on the individual – of why it matters that there are so few women in engineering. The argument is simple. You’re an engineer. You probably had other opportunites along the way but chose to become and remain an engineer, suggesting that you think this is a pretty good – maybe even excellent – career. Assuming that women have about the same native ability as men to do math, science, and engineering (see the July 1999 column), why should convention or practice or bias or culture deprive them (us) of the opportunity to enjoy this excellent profession? This is the "do it for your daughters" case: we all want the best for our children, and that includes the opportunity to pursue the best career.

What to do: Now comes the hard part: what can be done to make engineering a more welcoming place – a more desirable profession – for women? Literature from Texas Instruments Strategic Communications states that "Building a corporate culture that values and respects diversity is a shared responsibility." That shared responsibility casts a wide net indeed when we include elementary through graduate education and the expectations of parents and society as factors that seem to limit the number of women in engineering. It’s therefore not surprising that there isn’t a formula for success. There are, however, some general principles that apply to businesses and universities alike.

92% of diversity experts agree that top management commitment and involvement are essential. Middle management commitment is also key in effecting change. Successful initiatives require integrating diversity into business objectives and mission statements, so that diversity efforts are viewed as central rather than peripheral. The message here is that diversity must be everyone’s business. When I resigned from my department’s faculty search committee after 10 years of service, I was asked "If you’re not there, who will make sure we look for women candidates?" The answer should have been obvious: everyone.

Beyond the general principles, there are actions that can address the deterrents. Some require changes in elementary education; others in how the media portrays engineers. Some, however, can be undertaken by engineers and engineering managers in industry and by administrators, faculty, and students in academia. Among the most promising:

Leah H. Jamieson
L.jamieson@ieee.org