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Ohio State study examines the persistence of women in engineering

A study at The Ohio State University aims to understand why women persist in the field of engineering despite the barriers they face.

The three-year study, "Why We Persist: An Intersectional Study to Characterize and Examine the Experiences of Women Tenure-Track Faculty in Engineering," is backed by a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Principal investigator Monica F. Cox, chair of the Department of Engineering Education, received the funding in 2015 during her tenure at Purdue University, and the project followed her when she came to Ohio State’s College of Engineering. The study is now split among Cox at Ohio State, Joyce Main at Purdue and Ebony McGee at Vanderbilt University.

Prof. Monica F. Cox (center) is pictured with fellow College of Engineering faculty Prof. Ann Christy (left) and Prof. Rachel Kajfez.Cox said the study will explore the reasons women continue to push forward in faculty engineering positions, and will examine situations in the context of race, class and gender. The team will focus on the stories and experiences of women faculty in engineering, including what motivates them, how they navigate academia, and how they define and achieve success.

“I think there’s something really special about these women, particularly those women of color, who choose to go into this profession knowing the barriers that are there for them, knowing the struggles that they might encounter, knowing that they’ll be trailblazers. What’s their story? And also, what are the institutional contributors to that persistence? These are questions we have not asked yet,” said Cox.

The idea for the study came about when Cox reached a milestone in her own career. She became the first African American woman to earn tenure at Purdue’s school of engineering, a fact that surprised her given the institution’s long history. When she tried looking at data to find other women like her in similar positions, she had trouble locating them.

“There really isn’t a complete database of exactly how many women there are who are like me and where they’re located. That’s surprising in our data-driven age,” said Cox. “In engineering, we talk a lot about big data, but what about little data? Because I’m a number and I should count, even I’m one. That discovery led to a bigger conversation of who are we, where are we, why we’re doing what we’re doing and have we really made progress.”

The study will be conducted in three phases. For the initial phase, the team is examining data from 350 U.S. academic institutions with accredited engineering programs. They will use databases from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to identify how issues of race and gender are interconnected. From there, the remaining two phases will involve in-depth interviews with women faculty of color and a national survey to determine what prompted these women to persist in engineering, thereby exploring issues of class.

Ohio State’s support of diversity—particularly at the College of Engineering—adds a unique benefit to the study, said Cox, noting that when an administration is committed to diversity, it influences the rest of the organization.

She said the study is especially timely given the recent buzz surrounding the film, “Hidden Figures” which shines a spotlight on women in STEM-related roles. She hopes her team's research will provide a similar kind of visibility for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and open more women’s eyes to the opportunities available to them.

Cox said the study’s results can be used to influence institutional practice and policies to ultimately increase the number of women in engineering and alleviate the barriers that prevent more females from entering the field.