The uphill trail to gender equity

An illustration of the modern workforce. (Photo: Shutterstock)

When I was a member of the electrical engineering faculty at the University of Michigan in the early 1990’s, I will never forget what the head of our department would invariably say to me whenever I stayed in the lab to work late.

“Why are you still here,” he wanted to know. “Don’t you have a family to go home to?”

I was one of two women in the electrical engineering class of 189. My female colleague and I never felt welcome. Quite the opposite.

The question upset me because I could not help but notice that he never asked the same of my male colleagues, who also had families at home.
As a woman who has experienced subtle and not-so-subtle gender bias at different times in my career, I know we have come a long way when it comes to treating men and women equally. But I also know we still have a long way to go.

That’s why I was happy to learn last month that California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and other leaders at the Capitol are making a strong case for gender equity in their work in the state Legislature.

From equal pay for equal work to access to health care and a host of other issues, it should be obvious to any thinking person that we don’t have the level playing field valued by so many Americans.

Some of the changes can come through legislation like the Speaker and her colleagues are pushing. Others require greater education and cultural change.

When I had the honor of being named dean of the College of Engineering at Purdue University in 2002, a colleague suggested he and I meet one of the leading industrial figures in the region to talk about our plans for the school.

After being introduced as dean, he had a puzzled look on his face and asked if I was “dean of the whole school.” He could not believe a woman held that job in a field still dominated by men.

Things were much worse when I enrolled as an undergraduate at the Polytechnic University in Athens in 1972. I was one of two women in the electrical engineering class of 189. My female colleague and I never felt welcome. Quite the opposite.

I will always remember what the president of our class said called me in to talk during he time students were getting their lab assignments.
I assumed that’s what he wanted to discuss, but he wanted to know why I was at the school in the first place.

“Did you know you took away the position from somebody who could use it?” he said. “You’re going to finish and then get married and you’re never going to use what you have done here. Somebody else could have used that spot.”

Sometimes, when I think of the long and highly satisfying career I have had in engineering and academia, where I have worked hard to help women and other under-represented groups achieve greater access to pursue their chosen fields, I reflect back on those comments and use them as motivation.

At UC Davis, where I have served as Chancellor since the summer of 2009, we have made great inroads in hiring women faculty and promoting opportunities for women in the so-called STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math. In its rankings of the “Top 50 Colleges Advancing Women in STEM” for 2013, the College Database, an online ranking survey, listed UC Davis number one in the nation with 2,503 women in 169 STEM programs.

Unfortunately, a study conducted each year by our Graduate School of Management, sheds light on how far we still need to go in California to achieve gender equity in another crucial area, on the boards and in the executive offices of our top companies.

In the 10th annual study of California Women Business Leaders, the numbers show women holding 11.5 percent of board director and highest-paid positions at the state’s 400 largest public companies headquartered in California. That’s a slight increase from the prior year, but a full 25 percent of those companies still have no women in top positions.

Overall, when it comes to board director’s seats, men hold nearly 88 percent of the spots and 91 percent of the highest paid jobs.

Greater diversity is desirable because it’s the right thing to do. But the UC Davis data show that the top 25 companies by percentage of women leaders generated twice the revenue and net income of the average firm surveyed. In other words, a powerful argument can be made that greater gender diversity is good not just for society, but also for the bottom line.

It is 2015 and women have indeed come a long way. But as too many key indicators still show, more progress needs to be made, which is why I applaud and encourage the efforts of our women leaders in the Legislature and elsewhere who are making equity issues a priority.

Ed’s Note: Linda P. B. Katehi is the chancellor of the University of California, Davis.

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