Ages ago people asked me what my research was actually about. Well, here’s a synopsis of my PhD work as a starter.
I got my PhD in Industrial Engineering at the University of WIsconsin-Madison, and a PhD minor in women’s studies. I was interested in how we keep using two ideas to understand women’s underrepresentation in engineering – the pipeline, and the chilly climate – and how the programs and solutions that came from those ideas didn’t seem to be increasing the number of women going into or graduating from engineering (in fact, the number is actually decreasing). I wondered if there was a different metaphor that would help.
At the same time, I was reading work by Amy Bix on how women’s technical training historically was situated in home economics. She talked about how women took:
a battery of general home economics courses (food chemistry, textiles and clothing, home management, child development), sciences (bacteriology, biology, physiology), social sciences, and humanities
which sounded potentially like engineering to me – except for that child development class, of course. So what was it that made these “equipment majors,” degrees which prepared women to work in engineering jobs during the Second World War, “home economics” and not engineering?
I learned that people made choices about what should become engineering (and in so doing, paid work) and what should not, in order to preserve identities, power, resources, whatever it was, and that these choices were all influenced by gender ideology. Equipment majors weren’t engineering majors because they focused on the domestic sphere, not the industrial or commercial sphere, and because they were women of a certain race and class, men rationalized their work as their “life’s work” as opposed to a job, and therefore reducing home economics’ access to federal resources through legislation like in the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917.
What, I wondered, was the current day impact of all this gender ideology? Now that we were a liberated, egalitarian, non-sexist society, did someone go back into the sexist distinctions between engineering and home economics, and redraw the boundaries based on our current understandings of work and gender?
Of course, the answer is no. But the idea of boundaries was the alternative metaphor I was looking for. So I interviewed engineering faculty at a big research-oriented school and asked them how they made decisions about what they decided to research and teach and do in service, and how those things were or were not engineering. I looked at how they used language to describe what they felt impacted their decisions. I looked at how they experienced boundaries in their work – when their mentoring committees told them what not to spend their time on, when they didn’t get funding from somewhere because it didn’t “look right” enough, when they wanted to teach a particular course but didn’t think it would get enough students.
From all this, I created a theory of boundaries that was different from the existing boundary work literature – my theory is based on engineering faculty members’ explicit language, and is also directed to them too as a tool they could use to help make different choices. (I should submit this paper in the next 2 weeks or so.) And I used this theory to help articulate how engineering faculty still rely on gender ideology to reconstruct gendered engineering courses and research – where the historical work of women continues to not count as “engineering.” (That paper should get submitted in the next month or two.) The paper I have in review right now is focused on the similar and problematic stories that faculty used in defining engineering to themselves and to others, and sets up the “next month or two” paper. I’ll blog more about that if it gets published.
So why do I call this feminist research? or engineering education research? The latter first: this is engineering education research because it is entirely focused on the formal tertiary engineering education domain. It looks at engineering educators and how they do their jobs (that part makes it industrial engineering too, I argued). I situate this research in the “engineering epistemology” category offered by the Engineering Education Research Colloquies (pdf). The former: it is feminist because it makes use of gender as a “useful category of historical analysis” (as said Joan Scott) in order to argue for social change. That’s my squishy definition of feminism.
I’m developing a bunch of different aspects of this into my faculty research, but I’ll save that for another post.