27 September 2023

Mother of invention: How to engineer a revolution for women leaders

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Alec D. Gallimore* says his engineering college has successfully shifted its culture to welcome more women and allow them to rise to leadership on an equal basis.

Photo: College of Engineering, University of Michigan

Often when I tell people that we have filled half of the top leadership positions at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering with women, I can almost see the unspoken assumption in many of their eyes: They think we did it by passing over better-qualified male candidates.

At the 10 US engineering schools with the largest research budgets, women make up about 17 per cent of the faculty.

It’s always noticed when women constitute a higher-than-usual proportion of an engineering college’s leadership, but somehow we don’t make the same assumptions about talent when all of a school’s top positions are filled by men.

In our case, the numerical skew toward hiring women comes from expecting more — not less — of our top administrators.

Being an accomplished engineer is still a requirement, but it is no longer sufficient.

Our leaders also need to be able to see and articulate biases in the organisation and propose ways to counter them.

It turned out that the women who were hired as leaders in our latest round performed better on those measures.

That simple recruiting change has transformed our leadership.

Women now occupy 13 of the 25 top faculty-leadership roles — department chairs, associate deans, and executive committee members.

Here I share four key approaches we followed to build that pool — with the hope that other leaders of male-dominated fields in science, engineering, and medicine may adopt the same tactics and see similar success.

Find out where your playing field isn’t level

The first step involves measuring your culture problem.

Like many other universities, Michigan began examining the campus culture and policies that led women to leave science and engineering, or never enter in the first place.

In 2001, Michigan’s new Advance program started with a climate survey that polled all faculty members.

One of the telling outcomes was that female scientists and engineers at Michigan rated the university more negatively than did their male colleagues on nearly every climate measure, but particularly on whether their department had a “gender-egalitarian atmosphere.”

Those results highlighted one of the difficult aspects of understanding organisational climate: When you’re part of the dominant demographic, the challenges that underrepresented people face are often less visible to you.

Female leadership can play a critical role in improving an organisation’s responsiveness to culture problems.

When the College’s leaders received the latest climate results, no one raised a question about whether the women were just overly sensitive — as I have heard before in a room full of men.

Instead, we immediately set to work on a plan that would (a) identify the causes of the gender discrepancies and (b) develop solutions.

Train your hiring committees to challenge unconscious biases

By now, there is a high degree of awareness in academe about unconscious bias — the shortcuts our brains take in deciding who is competent and trustworthy.

People also view virtues and faults differently, whether we are assessing a man or a woman.

But the goal in the hiring process is not just to spot unconscious biases — in ourselves and in others — but to challenge them.

At Michigan, our Advance program homed in on unconscious bias in hiring, and began hosting workshops that delved into research studies on the topic.

About 60 per cent of our professors have received the training, and we believe that it has helped to reduce bias in the College at large.

To cultivate leaders, ensure equal access to mentors

An organisation’s next leaders don’t come out of nowhere: Over years, or decades, they get experience and advice that propels them to the top jobs.

But if men have more access to good mentors than women do, that only sustains the gender disparities of the past.

For some challenges, women benefit most from the advice of other women — for instance, in handling sexist remarks in the lab or the classroom.

Since 2013, a dean’s advisory council of female faculty members has met to discuss specific struggles and share solutions.

Some women with decades of experience in engineering may hesitate to apply for the top leadership jobs, doubting that they would be treated fairly if they put themselves forward.

I personally approached many professors — male and female — to encourage them to apply for open positions.

Several women told me that this small gesture had sent the message that they would be taken seriously.

Redefine “merit” to include “taking inequality seriously.”

Idea Lab: Faculty diversity

Nonetheless, the women we promoted to leadership posts in our Engineering College all competed on conventional measures of merit, and are recognised as outstanding in their own disciplines and beyond.

But as history shows us, conventional measures won’t hasten change.

They don’t produce leaders who make the field of engineering fairer to women, nor do they lead to the improvement of a culture that many women describe as deeply hostile.

So we added another layer to our hiring process for department chairs.

Applicants had to submit a diversity plan and were evaluated on their record and their potential contribution to progress in diversity, equity and inclusion.

A leadership candidate who cannot see that the playing field is uneven has no hope of correcting it.

Our leaders must recognise their own advantages and the barriers encountered by others.

Diversity is not a charitable cause.

It’s about staying competitive.

In many institutions, diversity is seen as a moral good rather than the solution to a problem.

The result: Those institutions often miss out on talent and perspectives that would make them better at education and research.

The strategies I have outlined are only part of the solution.

Other challenges are difficult to resolve with organisational policy, such as the way that caregiving falls unequally on women and men.

But with outstanding female engineers leading the College, I am optimistic that we can accelerate the cultural shift that will help make engineering genuinely welcoming to women.

* Alec D. Gallimore is Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan, USA.

This article first appeared at www.chronicle.com.

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