That research post: the PhD part

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.


  1. #1 PhysioProf
    March 28, 2008

    Very interesting post, Alice!

    One thing that occurred to me is the reinforcement of implicit boundaries you may be engaging in via your own characterization of your research as “feminist research” and “engineering education research”.

    After reading your description of your thesis research, I was thinking that it is much broader than what I (perhaps ignorantly) inferred from those two terms. What I think you are really talking about are the implicit value, resource, and training structures of the entire discipline and profession of engineering.

    I’m just pulling shit out of my ass here, but what would be the implications of characterizing your research as something like “philosophy and sociology of engineering”?

  2. #2 Carrie
    March 28, 2008

    I had no idea you could get a PhD minor in a given subject. That must depend on the school and even the department, but it’s a great idea — especially in fields that don’t normally intersect like engineering and women’s studies.

  3. #3 Alice
    March 29, 2008

    PhysioProf – ah yes, an irony of which I am very much aware. I had to argue my research was engineering to get a PhD out of it, even though it was about problematizing the definitions of engineering. And re your last comment – I actually really identify with the label “engineering studies” (see for example, this group) which would indeed incorporate the philosophy/sociology of engineering. In fact, I understand a group of people at Virginia Tech is starting a journal called Engineering Studies. Very exciting.

    Carrie – yes, I was glad about the potential for a minor, especially for one so “outside” my other “field.” (Boundary metaphors abound, hah.)

  4. #4 bsci
    March 31, 2008

    I’ve been thinking about this post. I did a quick google scholar search of you and it seems most of your work on this topic isn’t yet available so I can’t yet get a better idea of what you’ve done.
    The main thing I kept thinking about on this post is the unique place of my own field of biomedical engineering or bioengineering. While it’s far from 100% welcoming to women, it has the highest female:male ratio of most (all?) engineering programs.
    For example, from the NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates 2006, the total # of Female:Male engineering PhD was 1452:5724 (25% female) while it was 179:344 (34% female) in bioengineering. At my undergrad school, the ratio was around 50:50.

    My general rationale why is that it’s a much younger field where chauvinism hasn’t gotten as entrenched. Your talk about language is another hypothesis. What is most interesting about bioengineering is that it isn’t actually a distinct engineering subset. If you use electrical or chemical engineering tools to work on biological problems you are a bioengineer. Thus, you have people learning the same skills with a different application and a different language context causing a shift in the gender ratio. I could write more and I might in future posts on this topic, but this is probably long enough for now.

    As a bioengineering PhD, Zuksa could probably also contribute more on this topic.

  5. #5 Tanya L. Crenshaw
    April 3, 2008

    Ha! I had no idea you studied this! This is one of my top 10 favorite topics! Your work reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Subramaniam, “There is little response or concern to questions such as ’Where is this pipeline coming from?’ and ’Where is going to?’ ’Who laid these pipes?’ ’How is it embedded in global capitalism?’ ’Who are we producing for what purpose?’ ’Why are we so invested in shoving all these young girls and women into the pipeline that is dark and dingy and not very habitable?”