This academic year has seen a spate of news articles about the widening gender gap on college campuses, with women now outnumbering men by about three to two.
Those articles apparently caught the attention of Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, who slipped a discussion of them somewhere between COVID-19 numbers and innovation plans in his annual winter letter to “the people” of Purdue.
“Provided one agrees that this is a problem, Purdue has a role to play in solving it,” Daniels wrote in his letter. “Our historical average of about 57 percent males in the population has remained remarkably stable, even as many other schools have seen that proportion fall to the low 40s or even below. There is no intention behind this against the trend situation and no mystery as to the reasons. Young men and women choose different disciplines very differently, and the STEM subjects, which are relatively predominant at Purdue, tend to attract men.”
Daniels’ attempt to join the conversation about gender differences was met with a thud. Some 1,200 engineering professors, students and alumni, and supporters in other fields have since signed a letter opposing Daniels’ “discouraging” stance on the long-term underemployment of women in engineering.
The letter, first signed by 58 female Purdue engineering professors, does not question Daniels’ right to discuss the problem of missing college men. Rather, the focus is on how Daniels talks about it — that Purdue’s 57 percent male student population, driven in large part by the 74 percent male engineering student population, helps “tackle” the assumed problem.
“Female students in their classes look around at their classmates and don’t see many women – they are clearly a minority, and yet a strong focus of your open letter was on recruiting male students,” the engineering faculty’s letter said. “Your message is heartbreaking for women in STEM because it shows you clearly don’t understand their experiences.”
“Let’s look at the numbers”
The faculty letter further criticizes Daniels, who ran engineering-heavy Purdue for nine years, for misrepresenting the facts about women in engineering.
First, here’s a bit more of what Daniels said:
“We have and will expand a variety of programs to recruit more women into these disciplines. For example, at 26 percent, our proportion of women among engineering students is one of the highest in the country. (I’ve observed at times that no one ever writes to express concern that we need more men in our college of veterinary medicine, which is 87 percent women, or our nursing department, which is 89 percent women, or our college of pharmacy, which is 64 percent women.) Purdue cannot solve this looming national problem, but sending thousands of exceptional young engineers, computer scientists and other technology experts who happen to be men is a contribution few other institutions are making.”
Regarding Daniels’ “highest nation” statement, the faculty letter, citing data from the American Society for Engineering Education, states: “Let’s look at the numbers. Purdue’s “percentage” of women in engineering at 26 percent is barely above the national average of 24 percent, nowhere near the “national highest,” and far behind many of our up-and-coming peers (MIT: 46 percent; CalTech: 43 percent; Stanford : 40 percent ).”
Peer public institutions like the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley also outperform Purdue in percentage terms, with women making up about a third of its engineering student body, the letter continued. “This is not a reflection of bad programs here; it is more a reflection of Purdue’s weak institutional commitment to increasing the number of women in STEM fields.”
The letter confirms that Purdue is one of the nation’s largest producers of female engineering graduates due to its size. But it does suggest that something closer to parity could be achieved on campus, learning from research on “male-preferential” criteria in admissions decisions and from more support for Purdue’s 50-year women in engineering program, which served has served as an example for similar programs elsewhere and has raised much of its own funding. Even programs like this that are fully funded “will not solve the gender issues in undergraduate and graduate admissions, faculty hiring, faculty retention, the general climate and culture of engineering and more broadly at Purdue ‘ the letter says.
As for Daniel’s comment that no one ever complains that there are too few men in fields like nursing, the letter cites other research suggesting that women are over-represented in lower-paid fields and that even in these “feminized” Areas where men are preferred for promotion and are overrepresented in higher-paying sub-areas. (Women in male-dominated areas, on the other hand, face a documented “glass ceiling” as opposed to a “glass escalator.”)
“You missed the opportunity”
“We feel that you have unfortunately missed the opportunity to articulate a value proposition for higher education for both men and women and those who identify as LGBTQ+,” the letter reads. “Let’s do the work of understanding what limits the growth of all groups and their ability to contribute. Let’s do this work alongside work to understand women’s underrepresentation. We hypothesize that the causes of these phenomena across the gender spectrum are strongly related to societal norms propagated through advertising and false expectations of people fulfilling roles based on gender and other characteristics. This limited vision of society must end, and Purdue should take the lead to ensure that happens.”
A few days after Daniels sent his letter asking where the men were, the university’s student newspaper published the Purdue exponent, offered his own answer: an article entitled “Where Are All the Women?”. The newspaper also ran an editorial in which Daniels said that “gender inequality doesn’t work that way.”
“Daniels pats the back of Purdue’s 26 percent female STEM population rather than providing resources to encourage women’s inclusion in a male-dominated field,” reads the editorial, which reproduces portions of the faculty letter. “What he doesn’t realize is that fewer women enrolling in most STEM programs and fewer men enrolling in nursing and veterinary science are two sides of the same coin: enforcing societal expectations of careers on the grassroots.” of gender roles. Perhaps not coincidentally, traditional ‘women’s jobs’ are some of the most underpaid, and the few men who do work in female-dominated jobs are often better paid and promoted faster.”
Students from the Purdue Society of Women Engineers also organized a march to protest Daniels’ letter. About 100 students and teachers took part.
Alice Pawley, an engineering education professor who helped organize the faculty letter, said if Daniels wanted to have a meaningful conversation about gender equality in education, he could have consulted with any number of experts at Purdue.
“We have scholars on this campus who are doing gender in STEM education,” Pawley said. “We have a nationally respected Women in Engineering program, like the first in the country. We have a [National Science Foundation] Scholarship focused on women in STEM faculty positions. We have a huge data analyst office. We have people who deal with gender in the workplace, like sociology, right? We have people in nursing school. All of these people could have given him advice on the so-called problem he identified in this piece if he had asked for it.”
Instead, she said, “Daniels speaks for the campus, which suggests we’re doing a great job supporting men in higher education by having 57 percent of undergraduate students men.” That’s just bias. This is not a feature we should celebrate.”
Pawley said the faculty letter was sent to a number of administrators, including Daniels, and that weeks later, the original signers had heard nothing.
Matthew Ohland, a professor of engineering education at Dale and Suzi Gallagher, said he signed the letter after the first 58 women professors because Purdue is “doing a lot of good things, and we’re doing them on a large scale.” But you know, I’m not celebrating that some of those things come at the expense of making this a place where women feel included.”
The “greater concern” about Daniel’s letter is the “impact it is having on students,” Ohland continued.
Through the university senate, Ohland sent this question to Daniels: “What positive actions will you take to counteract the negative effect of your recent and widely read ‘Where are all the men?’ Comments on our efforts to recruit female faculty and students for Purdue STEM subjects?”
Ohland has yet to hear anything, although the Daniels administration has answered a number of other questions sent by the Senate at the same session in late January.
Purdue said in a statement Wednesday that Daniels’ letter, as noted by the news media, made it clear that “men are going to college at lower rates and graduating, which no one would see as a good thing. Again, the letter indicates that Purdue is not part of this problem. Women are making progress in STEM subjects, and that progress, as President Daniels noted, is “overdue.” At Purdue, we are investing in recruiting and empowering women in STEM, and as the letter states, we will continue to expand these programs.”