“People say that having more women in engineering will change everything. Well, that’s the damned point!”
Professor Toor was particularly animated one day in 1986. Our Heat & Mass Transfer class at Carnegie was very technical, with infinitely more time spent on math than sociology. Herb Toor, however, was a empathetic and real-world professor with a reputation. He was out to change engineering forever, and put his prodigious passion into it.
I think about him a lot when we reach milestones, such as the recent swearing in of a record 102 women in the US House of Representatives.
Prof Toor had once been a Dean of the Carnegie Institute of Technology, but found that the daily grind of business took him far from his passions. Those were teaching and recruiting diverse talent into the field, the latter being the reason he took the gig in the first place. It didn’t work quite as he expected, so he went back to the more personal world of teaching.
He was an excellent teacher in many ways, always practical and full of career advise beyond the rigors of the topic at hand.
His greatest passion, however, was recruiting women and minorities into engineering. He was famous for meeting with top candidates still in high school, recruiting them the way any other school might recruit a football star. The story was that he spent many hours with the family of a bright young woman, working out just how they were going to be able to afford Carnegie-Mellon with a combination of scholarships and assistance.
I didn’t learn of this from him, of course, but from another professor who was somewhat in awe of Toor’s passion to redefine the profession. Prof Toor would never brag about his work.
Our class was 20% women, slightly less than the current 23.4% we have in the US House. I can tell you from this experience and other work environments that while 50% is obviously the goal, things start to change a bit in the 20-25% range. “Locker room talk” is no longer accepted. The business at hand is business. Personality becomes less important than merit and hard work.
In short, everything gets better for everyone. That’s what Prof. Toor was going on about.
More than 30 years on, women make up only about 28% of all STEM employees, but a stunning 42% of all PhDs. Apparently, they tend to feel they need credentials to prove themselves more. They also tend to leave the field at a higher rate than men, with over half finding other careers within 12 years.
This is not good for many reasons. A world that is more complex all the time, whether in engineering or in politics, demands representation from all perspectives in order to reach solid, durable solutions. The evidence that some of the key decision makers who shape our world still operate in an environment which is less than respectful, perhaps even hostile to half of the population is simply unacceptable.
It’s a recipe for failure.
Today, however, we can see that in the US House we are making some progress. We can only hope that it continues, and that under Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) things continue to improve. For all of Prof Toors hard and passionate work, I can’t say that STEM fields have gotten quite to where they need to be, but there has been some progress in the last generation.
All any of us can do is what’s in front of us. It certainly takes affirmative action, but more importantly it takes individual passion and time spent making a personal connection and commitment. Whether that is Prof Toor at the kitchen table or a candidate for Congress knocking on doors, the principle is the same.
It is about people – their talents and their drive. Far too many bright people are not achieving what they can because of who they were born. That loss is felt by everyone.
In the end, I learned a lot more than Heat & Mass Transfer. I learned how things actually happen in this world. Prof Toor died in 2011 after a long and fabulous career. I miss him greatly, but more importantly his principles live on. For all of his work as a passionate recruiter, in the end he was a teacher.
Today’s US House may yet teach us, too. If we can indeed get past the good ol’ boy networks and start solving our problems, we may well learn by example that our nation has a bright future ahead of it. It most certainly does, assuming we refuse to throw talent away simple because it doesn’t match our expectations of gender or race or anything else. In fact, those things themselves are valuable in many ways, bringing new perspectives to a complex world.
That is the damned point, after all.