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MIT Better World

By Kara Baskin

Silbey is the Leon (1926) and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities, professor of sociology and anthropology, and professor of behavioral and policy sciences at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Much of her work explores the ways in which complex technological organizations govern and observe themselves. Currently, only 13% of the engineering workforce is female. Why do these dynamics occur and persist? The paper, published in Work and Occupations and titled “Persistence is Cultural: Professional Socialization and the Reproduction of Sex Segregation,” focused on MIT, Smith College, Olin College, and the University of Massachusetts. The study found systematic differences in the experiences of students from these schools—not by institution, but by gender. For example, women are often marginalized during team-based projects and internships in their undergraduate years—relegated to “managerial and communication” roles, Silbey says, instead of those that require technical acumen. In a candid conversation, Spectrum asked her how the role of education in engineering could help to repair this discrepancy.

Why do you think women pursue careers in engineering despite the marginalization they reported in your research?

SS: A large number of them who report negative experiences stay with engineering because they believe they can handle and overcome the obstacles, and that engineering is an objective meritocracy that will appropriately reward them. They are ambitious and confident. When women leave, it’s more often because they find it not only a hostile environment, but they also don’t think the work will be sufficiently interesting.

What are the challenges involved in repairing these gender dynamics?

SS: Both men and women have to recognize that it’s not an objective meritocracy. Engineers often apply the logic of machines to people, but people are not machines in any of their actions; thus they are not entirely objective. As hard as they may try, they incorporate preferences, prejudices, and commonplace norms into their decisions, often unconsciously. Like most professions, engineering develops local, idiosyncratic criteria that the actors don’t always recognize. The problem is that organizations and cultures reproduce themselves. The people who control the resources more often reward those who are like themselves.

We can split the atom and make new materials, but social institutions—and engineering is not only a profession but an institution—are durable because they are hard to change, perhaps harder than matter, and routinely reproduce their habits.

Is there a way forward through education?

SS: Of course there is, but it requires change. Engineering tries to squeeze everything into four years, and in the process squeezes out ethical, social, and cultural education. Students should be able to explore more, and explore out of their comfort zones. They need to encounter history, political science, literature, and sociology to challenge what they know and are skilled at so that they can learn about other ways of thinking and acting, and yes, other ways of encountering the world, making decisions and solving problems.

We’ve overcome the pipeline problem. There are plenty of women highly skilled in what is required for engineering. It is now a local culture problem. We need to provide each student with the opportunities to develop the skills of self-learning and observation of self and others in order to figure out how to manage oneself for lifelong learning. When people are not open to epistemological variety—different kinds of knowledge-making—they tend to stick with what is most comfortable, and that’s how you get groupthink, as well as misogyny.

Your paper notes that any reforms in engineering education aimed at encouraging gender parity must address the workplace as well as curriculum, because workplace experiences are often what discourage women from pursuing engineering careers. And in a recent MIT News interview, you mentioned a potential strategy might be to offer “directed internship seminars.” What would that entail?

SS: I had in mind parallel mentoring and group discussion, perhaps some reading about the internship experience as it was ongoing. Those discussions would not only provide support for the students but would also educate them in organizational and social processes, culture, and professional work. Many sociology departments, for example, offer such internship courses for their students to learn about how organizations work and what the world of work is like. It is both a hands-on practical experience and a scholarly exploration.