Gendered Facets of Faculty Careers and Challenges to Engineering Education
January 11, 2013
Gendered Facets of Faculty Careers and Challenges to
Engineering Education as an Inclusive Profession
Kacey Beddoesa, Alice L. Pawleya, and Dina Banerjeeb
Purdue Universitya, Shippensburg Universityb
Corresponding Author Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Women faculty remain underrepresented in many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
(STEM) fields in both Australia and the United States. Given the current interest in developing
engineering education as a profession in its own right, it is necessary for engineering educators to
examine and understand the experiences and working conditions of engineering faculty members.
Otherwise, professionalization efforts risk ignoring and perpetuating gendered facets of faculty
careers. Furthermore, those gendered facets of faculty careers stand as potential barriers to the
successful promotion of engineering educator identities. Better understandings of the experiences of
female faculty are necessary because gender biases of faculty careers often go unnoticed or unvoiced
and therefore remain unproblematized as neutral features of academia.
The purpose of this study was to identify factors contributing to the low numbers of female faculty
members in engineering (and related) fields, identify gendered facets of faculty careers, and highlight
bodies of literature that are pertinent (based on our data) to engineering education.
Forty-four semi-structured interviews averaging 90 minutes in length were conducted with female and
male faculty members in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) departments at
a large public research university in the United States. Participants were asked about many different
facets of their experiences as STEM faculty members. Transcript data were analysed using a
grounded theory approach to identify gender-related themes that shape faculty careers.
Three themes emerged as gendered influences on faculty careers. They were: socialization, gender
roles and unconscious bias, and work-family balance. Each theme reveals ways in which academic
institutional (and broader social) norms generally work to the advantage of male faculty and the
disadvantage of female faculty.
There are a variety of ways in which engineering faculty careers are gendered, and literature from
relevant fields such as higher education and social psychology should be brought to bear on our
understandings of those gendered facets. Gender inequalities, such as those we identify, should be
understood as challenges for the engineering education community to address as it aspires to become
a more equitable profession, and we also offer these themes as important research horizons for
engineering education researchers.
Gender, faculty members, institutional culture
Proceedings of the 2012 AAEE Conference, Melbourne, Victoria, Copyright © Beddoes, Pawley, & Banerjee, 2012
Despite decades of effort, time, and money invested to recruit and retain women faculty, they
remain underrepresented in many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
(STEM) fields in both Australia and the United States (Mills, 2011; National Science
Foundation, 2011). They are denied tenure at higher rates than men, and they leave faculty
positions more often than men (AFT Higher Education, 2011; Ceci, Williams, & Barnett,
2009; Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and
Engineering, 2006; Hill, Corbett, & St. Rose, 2010). In the field of Higher Education, this
phenomenon has been studied through various lenses, including human capital, culture and
privilege, and institutional organization (Marschke, Laursen, Nielsen, & Dunn-Rankin, 2007).
However, most engineering education scholarship on women and gender tends to focus on
female students or engineering professionals in non-academic contexts, while faculty are
overlooked. Nonetheless, there are important reasons for examining gendered facets of
faculty careers, particularly as engineering education focuses on professionalization efforts.
As Tierney & Bensimon (1996) assert, gender-blindness does not in fact lead to equality, and
further analyses of gender in the academy are needed: “The eradication of overt and covert
discrimination against women requires critical and gender-based appraisals of academic
structures, practices, and policies as well as the elimination of language and interactions that
create overtly hostile, patronizing, or indifferent workplaces for women” (p. 76).
The purpose of this paper is to highlight bodies of literature that, as seen in our data, are
pertinent to engineering education as a professionalizing field. Specifically, we address the
following questions: (1) What gendered facets of faculty careers have STEM faculty
experienced? (2) What are the implications of these gendered facets for engineering
education as a profession? Based on in-depth interviews with 44 faculty members, we
identified three leading themes as gendered facets of faculty careers. The themes were: (1)
socialization and informal social networks; (2) gender roles and unconscious bias; and (3)
work-family balance. Together, these facets contribute to the “cumulative disadvantage”
faced by female faculty members. Our analysis points to several themes as important
research horizons for engineering education researchers interested in advancing engineering
education as an inclusive profession.
Literature Review: Gender in Faculty Careers
Socialization and informal social networks
Socialization, “the process through which individuals learn the necessary behaviours and
skills to fulfil new roles,” (Sallee, 2011, p. 188) is a common theoretical lens used in higher
education literature. Formal and informal social networks play key parts in the socialization of
new faculty (Bagilhole & Goode, 2001; Tierney & Bensimon, 1996). Informal socialization
consists of after-work activities, lunches, and water cooler gatherings, for instance, and
female faculty in male-dominated departments are often not included in these activities
(Rose, 1989; Tierney & Bensimon, 1996). More than just leading to feelings of isolation and
loneliness, as that exclusion does for female science and engineering faculty, it also has
serious implications for career success (Bagilhole & Goode, 2001; Tierney & Bensimon,
1996). Male informal social networks contribute to the success of men’s careers in multiple
ways that typically go unseen, or are treated as unproblematic facets of academia. Women’s
exclusion means they have less access to information, collaboration and professional
opportunities, and support (Bagilhole & Goode, 2001). However, the advantages men accrue
through gendered socialization dynamics most often are interpreted as happenstance, or
being in the right place at the right time, rather than being seen as a systematic gender
advantage: “For men who more usually find themselves in influential company, the process
of networking, mentoring and sponsorship need not necessarily be a conscious activity. The
enhancement of academic reputation becomes a by-product of an informal culture”
Proceedings of the 2012 AAEE Conference, Melbourne, Victoria, Copyright © Beddoes, Pawley, & Banerjee, 2012
(Bagilhole & Goode, 2001, p. 173). In other words, “Success is not achieved by publishing
more, or even doing better research, but through personal contacts, friendships and
cooperative work with key players in the field” (Bagilhole & Goode, 2001, p. 166).
Gender roles and unconscious bias
Gender roles, or gender stereotypes, are “consensual beliefs about the attributes of women
and men” that inform collective “expectations associated with women and men” (Eagly &
Karau, 2002, p. 574). Gender role research shows that certain traits and behaviours are
generally associated with and women and others with men. Studies from social and
organizational psychology fields, among others, reveal that women are expected to be nice,
communal, and non-self-interested, while men are expected and perceived to be competent,
agentic, dominant, and influential (Babcock & Laschever, 2003; Biernat & Fuegen, 2001;
Carli, 2001; Heilman, 2001). Moreover, these associations are descriptive (relating to how
men and women actually do behave), prescriptive (influencing how we believe men and
women should behave), and injunctive (carrying social sanctions for those who transgress
them) (Eagly & Karau, 2002; Heilman, 2001). Gender roles prescribing that men are more
competent and that women need to be nice mean that women and their work products are
evaluated less favourably, particularly when they do not conform to roles, e.g., if they are too
assertive. Contrary to popular myth, academia is not immune from gender-biased
evaluations and assumptions about incompetency based on race or gender (Bagilhole &
Goode, 2001; Moody, 2004; Shields, Zawadzki, & Johnson, 2011). However, gender biases
of this sort are difficult to detect and prove because they are subtle, indirect, and implicit.
Often people are not aware of how their judgments are shaped by gender roles and consider
themselves unbiased (Dovidio, 2001; Heilman, 2001; Shields, et al., 2011). Therefore,
“Although women may suspect that they’ve been the victims of negative attitudes toward
women, they can rarely prove it and often have no recourse” (Babcock & Laschever, 2003, p.
94). The current systems and processes for evaluating faculty, including for tenure and
promotion, are set up in ways that promote the operation of unconscious biases (Beddoes &
Pawley, In review; Moody, 2004; Shields, et al., 2011).
As we elaborate upon in greater detail elsewhere (Beddoes & Pawley, In review), the
challenge of balancing work and family is a common theme in research on faculty. While
many faculty, men and women alike, struggle with this balance, research has shown that
women struggle more and sacrifice more in the struggle than men do (Fox, Fonseca, & Bao,
2011; Morrison, Rudd, & Nerad, 2011; Philipsen, 2008; Primack & O'Leary, 1993; Sorcinelli &
Near, 1989; Thompson & Dey, 1998; Wilson, 2003; Wolfinger, Mason, & Goulden, 2008). It is
well documented that women spend more time on housework and childcare activities than
their male partners, even when holding full-time jobs (Baker, 2008; Coltrane, 2004; Leonard,
2003). Moreover, male scientists and faculty members tend to have more supportive home
environments, which help advance their careers (Hochschild, 1975; Morrison, et al., 2011;
Thompson & Dey, 1998; Traweek, 1992), and the careers of male faculty benefit from family
and children in ways women’s do not (Mason & Goulden, 2004). Not only do men benefit in
ways women do not, but having children carries a stigma for female faculty that it does not
for men (Tierney & Bensimon, 1996).
Participants and recruitment
Participants included 44 faculty members (17 men and 27 women) in science, technology,
engineering, and agricultural fields at a large, public research university in the Mid-western
region of the United States. Participants represented several different racial and ethnic
groups; however, because not all participants chose to identify their ethnicity, we cannot
Proceedings of the 2012 AAEE Conference, Melbourne, Victoria, Copyright © Beddoes, Pawley, & Banerjee, 2012
report any numbers in that regard. In this paper, participants are identified as P1 through
Potential participants were identified through: 1) publicly available data (e.g. departmental
websites and newsletters); 2) college-level Deans’ offices; 3) faculty hire date; and 4)
modified snowball sampling. Recruitment focused on tenured and tenure-track faculty
progressing through certain career path points, including initial hiring, third-year review,
tenure, and subsequent promotion. An email was sent to eligible faculty inviting them to
participate in an interview. If they were interested in participating, they then contacted us.
Additionally, at the end of each interview, participants were asked for names of other faculty
that might be eligible for the study and willing to participate. Although participants were not
involved in education research themselves, their experiences and beliefs are germane to
engineering education because they provide insights on cultures and policies of engineering
departments and the majority of faculty involved in the emerging field of engineering
education are located in engineering departments.
Data collection and analysis
Semi-structured (Fetterman, 2010), in-person interviews were conducted between 2009 and
2011. They lasted approximately 90 minutes in length. Interviews were recorded and
transcribed by a professional transcriptionist. Transcripts were pseudonymized to remove
actual names and any other identifying information. This paper emerged from two larger, and
ongoing, studies on the limitations of pipeline and chilly climate metaphors and promotion
and tenure policies. Participants were asked how they felt about: the pipeline metaphor and
the way it explained women’s underrepresentation among STEM faculty; aspects of women’s
career pathways not covered by the pipeline and chilly climate models that should be given
further attention; how the pipeline metaphor fit their own career pathway; and their
experiences with promotion and tenure policies. Data were analysed using a grounded
theory approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) to identify leading themes that emerged from the
interviews. Other findings from the on-going research projects have been published
elsewhere (Banerjee & Pawley, 2011; Pawley & Hoegh, 2011; Schimpf, et al., 2012).
Findings and Discussion
Socialization and informal social networks
Female participants discussed being excluded from male social networks and a lack of
freedom to engage in those networks, even if they wanted to. P16 stated that the university
was female-friendly; however, her explanation belied that statement. She elaborated that she
liked the Women in Engineering lunches, but women had had to create their own lunches
because they were being excluded from the men’s lunches:
I do find [this university] female-friendly. I like the women in engineering lunches that we
have. I think those are interesting and good…I have noticed that when men were hired I
would see them going out for lunch. No one ever asked me out for lunch. So, you know,
the times that I have had lunch with male colleagues it’s been me that’s gone and said,
“Let’s have lunch.” I’ve never been invited for lunch…with anyone. So I always have to
have lunch at my desk.
She compared the situation to her former institution, and noted a bind women face:
The faculty [at the other university] also tend to have a lot of lunch meetings. So, you
know, you get together with a colleague and you have some stuff to sort out and you eat
together as well and have kind of that social interaction as well. And it’s just very different
here. And I feel kind of weird always being the one going to my colleagues and going,
“Let’s have lunch.” You know, especially since I’m the woman. [It] doesn’t matter what
happens, you do have to be careful. I have to make sure, with male colleagues, I’m
always asking about their wives, I’m always asking about their children. I’m letting them
know I’m not hitting on you!...And I think if I get married that will be less of a problem, but,
I think there are some things in which a single female woman is seen as threatening.
Others believed that women tend to be more isolated, which is detrimental to their careers
because they do not have access to or knowledge of the same resources as men who are
included in social networks. A lack of mentoring was also cited as a challenge more often
faced by women than men. These experiences of exclusion and isolation from social and
professional networks can have serious negative consequences for women’s careers, as
prior literature, discussed above, demonstrates.
Gender roles and unconscious bias
Although we did not specifically ask any questions related to unconscious biases, several
participants recognized that the tenure and promotion system left room for biases and the
“likeability factor.” For instance, P34 said:
It takes a while to build up a picture of what to do. You have to talk with a number of
people, because everybody’s perspectives on these things are different. There’s one
senior professor who states, basically if he wants you to be a colleague, he’ll vote [yes].
He doesn’t care what you put down on the form. While there’s others that…try to dismiss
anything they know about you personally, and they just look strictly at the objective
criteria. Everybody sort of has a different idea of what they want. So from that perspective,
it’s sort of a little bit inscrutable as to what exactly you need to do.
P6 worried about the role of external letters, saying, “I don’t know that I have any enemies in
the field but perhaps there are people out there who don't like me or like my work and I was
really scared that some of those people could write bad letters.” P6 also said that the secrecy
is “really frustrating…Especially from the perspective of a woman I think you worry about
there being some kind of an old boys club. I had no evidence to say that was going be the
case but I think that’s where I felt particularly vulnerable.” Similarly, P11, now an
administrator, recognized that the process is susceptible to “double standards” and is “all
kind of relative in many ways” because “we’re all people that have biases and we look at
things all in different ways.” P39 also recognized that “there is the possibility for abuse,”
elaborating on the ability of vocal or influential committee members to sway the vote and the
role of human biases:
I may take the same case and decide I really like this and I can present all the positives
and give excuses for all the things that weren’t done quite right, or I can take exactly that
same case and absolutely destroy it. The system relies on a few key individuals fairly and
objectively presenting the case. I would say I’ve seen a few cases where that hasn’t been
the case. Where I’ve seen a presentation and I think, you know, that wasn’t done in the
best interest of the faculty member. So, I think probably each year there’s a very small
number of cases that you look at and you think, wow, if a different person had been
presenting that, that may have been a different outcome. And that’s where unintended
biases could be coming into play…You’re never going to remove the fact that people are
involved in the process…but I think we have to have many checks and balances in place
to make sure that the committees of people making these decisions are not letting
elements of their subjectivity that are probably not appropriate come into play.
Furthermore, P39 emphasized that, in discussions, people do not always express their true
opinions, because votes do not always match the discussion: “People vote and it’s a
confidential vote and so people put things down on a piece of paper and sometimes it’s
surprising, you know, you had this discussion and you think, wow, everyone said they’re of
the same opinion and you look at the vote and it’s like, where did these three numbers come
from?” Thus, participants voiced concern over the ways in which individual biases enter into
As reported in greater detail elsewhere (Beddoes & Pawley, In review), the most common
theme that emerged was work-family balance. Most participants expressed a belief that there
are conflicts between being a female faculty member and having children and a partner.
They believed that faculty careers are too “demanding” and the work is not “family-friendly”
because it entails too great an investment of time for women who also want to have children.
As P19 said, explaining why she believed women are underrepresented among STEM
faculty, “I think that the reason it happens is because women think that if they have this
job…they can’t have kids and they can’t have a family and that they’re gonna be working like
100 hours a week and that won’t leave time for anything.” Reflecting back on her own
experience and expressing a similar sentiment, P16 said, “By the time I went into a faculty
position I pretty much abandoned the idea of having children…And so, I guess that did make
it easier for me to conceive of being successful, because I knew I would have so much more
The work-family balance challenges were directly linked to the fact that women have greater
family and housework responsibilities. P42 explained:
The conflict for [women] is [to] balance work and life. I have to say women’s requirements
are much higher than men. And what I may say may be not politically correct,
but…unfortunately, our society is such that I think women’s load is higher than men. I
think women tend to be more nurturing of the men. And men are much less nurturing of
the woman, in a husband/wife relationship. That makes [a woman’s] job much, much
Many participants commented on the unequal domestic and emotional labour energies for
wives, the expectations that women should put more energy into the marriage and how those
expectations conflicted with demanding nature of faculty careers. Jokes about needing a
“wife” also revealed unequal gendered expectations. For example, as P14 said, “Just every
once in a while, it’s like, ‘Oh, I wish I had a housewife to help me out, too.’ You know?” It
should be noted that both male and female participants made such jokes about needing
In addition to general discussions of family-related responsibilities, participants also
discussed stigma and negative perceptions of female faculty who have children, including
negative treatment during pregnancy. Legitimately, then, P19 worried that having children
would negatively affect colleagues’ perceptions of her:
The other thing to…think about is how having kids…affects others’ opinions of you…I’m
afraid that…if I have kids before tenure, people will think that maybe I’m not so serious or
maybe, like, the job isn’t my highest priority or if they would use it as an excuse to look
down on me, which I’m not saying people in this department would necessarily. But I don't
know. I don't know everybody really well…When you go up for tenure, they’re the ones
that are gonna be deciding whether or not you get to stay. And so, if people think that
you’re good and you take your work seriously and you’re productive, then you’re good to
go. And if people think that you’re just off having a bunch of kids all the time and you’re
not doing your work…that reflects negatively on you. But at the same time…there’s…all
these guys in the department…who have kids, right? And I don’t think it’s ever reflected
negatively on them that they’ve had kids.
Similarly, P16 believed there was “stigma” associated with having children if women take
advantage of parental leave policies. Therefore, along with socialization and unconscious
biases, gendered-family roles contribute to the “cumulative disadvantage” of female
Discussion and Conclusion
In contrast to scholarship that examines the challenges of conducting education research
within engineering departments, this analysis has focused on the challenges of being a
female faculty member in an engineering department, where engineering education initiatives
for, the most part, currently reside. Leading gendered facets of STEM faculty careers were
found to be: (1) socialization and informal social networks, (2) societal gender roles and
unconscious biases, and (3) work-family balance. The findings reveal that there are multiple
and complex gendered facets to academic careers, and increasing the number of female
STEM faculty will therefore require multiple and synergistic strategies. Participants felt
strongly that it was important to discuss and publicize the struggles female faculty face
because the struggles often go unseen and unaddressed, even by women themselves, until
they are given an opportunity to talk about it. For instance, P16 reflected upon how
articulating her experiences in the interview made her more aware of problems that she
usually tends to dismiss as “nothing.”
We suggest that, as engineering education emerges as a research field, our findings, and the
three themes identified in this analysis, serve as promising research horizons for engineering
education researchers. Extending research done in other fields and in other contexts (e.g.,
business) to engineering education contexts would be valuable. For example, data-driven
studies of unconscious biases operating among engineering faculty specifically would likely
go some way toward convincing engineering faculty that they exist and shape careers.
Another way in which the research could be extended would be through similar analyses of
other national contexts. While the literature in which our analysis is grounded is international
in origin, our data came only from one university in the United States, and engineering
education researchers and administrators should understand the challenges faced by female
faculty members in their own countries. Additionally, comparative international studies of
work-family balance in different countries could be useful to identify best practices that could
be adopted in other countries. The ways in which faculty socialization differs across national
contexts would also be important to understand, as would strategies that have successfully
been used by female faculty to overcome those challenges.
Our findings resonate with much prior research on higher education generally, and STEM
fields specifically, and we contend that they are worth highlighting in the current engineering
education context. Female faculty face multifaceted, and intersecting, gender biases that put
them at a disadvantage compared to their male colleagues. P16 described what others have
labelled “cumulative disadvantage”, the notion that there are many, often small, barriers that
add up to female faculty being at a disadvantage: “It’s more like, a drip, drip, drip. So …
there’s always like, this little drop of water falling on your head. So it’s little small things. And
that’s what wears you down.” Indeed, our findings reveal that cumulative disadvantage
involves complex and intersecting facets, three of which we discuss in this paper. Despite
prior documentation of these issues, since the 1970s and 80s, faculty are still experiencing
the same problems. This suggests not only that the findings bear repeating but that given the
lack of change, new strategies are needed to address them. There is an opportunity at the
moment for the engineering education community to take these gender biases seriously as
part of their efforts to create an inclusive profession. If gendered facets of engineering faculty
careers are not recognized or addressed, then all professionalization efforts will serve to
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We thank our participants for sharing their stories and thoughts with us, members of the
RIFE Group for discussions and comments that informed this work, and Jordana Hoegh for
data collection. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation under
Grant No. HRD-0811194. The findings and recommendations expressed in this article are
those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science
Copyright © 2012 Kacey Beddoes, Alice L. Pawley, & Dina Banerjee: The authors assign to AAEE and educational non-profit
institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article
is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to AAEE to publish this
document in full on the World Wide Web (prime sites and mirrors), on Memory Sticks, and in printed form within the AAEE 2012
conference proceedings. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.
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