We recently discussed how University of Illinois math professor Rochelle Gutierrez triggered a national controversy over her work “Building Support for Scholarly Practices in Mathematics Methods” in which she criticized math classes as a “tool of whiteness.” Then we discussed CUNY Professor Laurie Rubel’s publishing of a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Mathematics Education arguing that the concepts of meritocracy and “color-blindness” are ideological precepts that work against minorities. Now four professors denouncing the “hegemony of meritocratic ideology” and the “masculine culture” in engineering courses as hostile to women. University of California (Irvine) Professor Carroll Serron’s March 1 study insists that merit-based advancement in engineering is harming women and fails to consider political factors in recognizing engineers. The professors criticize the focus on “empirical science, technical thinking, merit, and individualism” as the cause for the isolation of female engineers.
The authors object to engineering as being too focus on the math and science and not enough on political concerns: “In its commitment to empirical science, technical thinking, merit, and individualism, engineering culture allocates what it sees as political issues…to the realm of the social and subjective.”
Of course, most of us view the objectivity and merit-based selection as the strength (if not the defining quality) of engineering. Indeed, like math, it is a field where results matter rather than gender or race — offering a merit-based system to minority academics. Yet, these professors object to the “valorization of ‘technical’ prowess at the expense of ‘socially focused’ work processes, depoliticizes the gendered structure of the profession.”
They also criticize female engineers for focusing on advancing through their merits instead of demanding the political consideration be given greater weight: “Rather than telling what [some researchers] describe as a subversive story…these women engineers are often reproductive agents of the ideology of meritocracy, helping perpetuate existing relations of power and inequality.”
I have obviously been critical of these articles as an abandonment of the core commitment of academia to objective and merit-based advancement. These academics however go further to denounce meritocracy itself. The authors are Carroll Seron, Susan Silbey, Erin Cech, and Brian Rubineau.
Edith Clarke became the first female electrical engineer and the first female professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin through the merit of her work — work that could not be ignored as objectively superior to many men. The same is true about Lillian Evelyn Moller Gilbreth who became one of the first working female engineers holding a Ph.D. and became a brilliant industrial/organizational psychologist. The did not achieve their extraordinary legacies by seeking to elevate political over scientific criteria. Studies like this one do not do justice to their contributions and the qualifications of many such female engineers.
You can read “I’m not a Feminist, but…”: Hegemony of a Meritocratic Ideology and the Limits of Critique Among Women in Engineering” in the journal Work and Occupations.