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Academic Leaders: Perspectives and Current Challenges

03/28/2011 10:30 AM Kresge
Dr. Ian A. Waitz, Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor and Department Head, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, MIT ; Shirley Ann Jackson, '68, PhD '73, President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Charles M. Vest, HM, MIT President Emeritus and President, National Academy of Engineering

Description: Two influential academic leaders, both holding a significant place in MIT's history, reflect on efforts to achieve gender equity in science and engineering at MIT and other institutions of higher learning.

"In spite of steps to promote diversity, underrepresentation of women at all faculty levels persists," says Shirley Ann Jackson. She admires MIT's decade"plus work on these issues, which spurred much broader self" scrutiny and policy changes among research universities, yet notes that "we're still a long way from gender equity in science and engineering." Jackson says, "Not knowing, not understanding and not intending do not get us off the hook. We're still responsible for bias that puts obstacles in front of talented, capable people." This is not merely a moral problem, Jackson says, but a practical one, too, because society cannot afford to deny itself the expertise of so many competent people "when we face immense global challenges."

At every step of the way, from entering college as a science or engineering major, sticking with a course of studies through graduate school, and then attaining tenure, women need "bridges" to help them get to the next level, whether through mentors, flexible tenure clocks or childcare. Jackson notes that the "unequal burden of family turns gaps in the road into chasms." She detects new hurdles on the horizon as well: family and gender issues are still viewed as "women's issues," at least beyond MIT; and economic pressures may create resistance to gender bias measures. Jackson also points to the phenomenon of "pink collar discrimination," where salary levels drop in some fields such as biomedical engineering as women's numbers approach men's, suggesting that women may be undervalued, or lack tough salary negotiating skills. Jackson believes social networks may be key to introducing the next generation to science and engineering, and helping women establish and maintain careers.

Speaking "as a white male," Charles Vest says men of his generation in academia assumed that "if you filled the undergraduate pipeline," you'd solve the problem of underrepresentation of women in science and engineering professions. The reality was different, admits Vest, because even if 50% of the undergraduates in these fields were women, many fewer ended up with careers in science and engineering. Vest describes the data"driven studies conducted at MIT, and the groundbreaking policies that followed, which led to advances in bolstering and retaining numbers of women graduates and faculty. He points to similar ventures at other universities.

But for all the work to address gender issues in academia, major leaks persist in the pipeline. He displays national data showing how the number of women Ph.D.'s has grown enormously in life sciences in the past decade, but lags greatly in physical sciences and especially in engineering. A recent study showed that only 1.6% of all female university graduates are engineers, which greatly disturbs Vest: "This is not a number that can sustain our society going into the future." Ultimately, he says, "Numbers really do matter," because "we have to achieve critical mass before the culture starts to change."

About the Speaker(s): Ian A. Waitz was named Dean of Engineering in February 2011. He also serves as the Director of the Partnership for AiR Transportation Noise and Emissions Reduction (PARTNER), an FAA/NASA/Transport Canada"sponsored Center of Excellence. His principal areas of interest are the modeling and evaluation of climate, local air quality and noise impacts of aviation.

Waitz has written approximately 75 technical publications, including a report to the U.S. Congress on aviation and the environment. He holds three patents and has consulted for many organizations. During 2002"2005 he was Deputy Head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He has also served as an associate editor of the AIAA Journal of Propulsion and Power. In 2003, Waitz received a NASA Turning Goals Into Reality Award for Noise Reduction. He was awarded the FAA 2007 Excellence in Aviation Research Award. He is a Fellow of the AIAA, and an ASME and ASEE member. He was honored with the 2002 MIT Class of 1960 Innovation in Education Award and appointment as an MIT MacVicar Faculty Fellow in 2003.

Waitz received his B.S. in 1986 from the Pennsylvania State University; his M.S. in 1988, from George Washington University; and his 1991, from the California Institute of Technology.

Host(s): Office of the President, MIT150 Inventional Wisdom

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