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Is the Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam a Barrier Against Women?

The intrepid Toni Airaksinen at Campus Reform has written an article highlighting the research of Drs. Julia Keen & Anna Salvatorelli on this subject.  The statistics are interesting and so are their recommendations for further research:

This study focused on pass rate, and the resultant disparity is only the first step. Additional research should be conducted to identify why women are not passing the PE exam at an equal percentage rate as men. This research should include:

  • Identifying biases in the exam itself

  • Examining the timing of administration of the exam in an engineer’s career progression

  • Exploring the likelihood of women to retake the exam compared to men after failing since the number of attempts was not recorded within the data collected

  • Identify factors that may contribute to higher pass rate for women in some states compared to others.

As someone who has taught civil engineering for more than a decade at the undergraduate level, this has more than a passing interest.  For me, it was also an interesting moment, because I saw this just after I had returned from the dedication of the new headquarters for Division 2 of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, where most of my students who work there are female.

Let me first set forth their “bottom line” cumulative statistics (I strongly urge those of you who can get access to their paper to do so):

  1. About 20% of the people who take the “Principles and Practices” exam are women.  That tracks pretty well with the number of women in my classes.
  2. 51.5% of the women pass the test on the first try, while 63.1% of the men do.

With that out of the way, I’d like to make some observations.

  1. My female students tend to be a very diligent and competent group.  In many ways an engineering curriculum is more of an endurance match than anything else; the women “tough it out” at least as well as the men.
  2. I’ve never noticed women having more difficulty with tests than men in my classes.  That’s saying a lot because my tests tend to be bizarre, as my students will attest.
  3. Women in civil engineering have some built-in advantages because of the diffuse structure of the system by which structures get built and their socialization skills, as I explain this 2014 post.  Because of the nature of our society, engineers tend to get stuck in the caboose on the train of respectability; I think that women are a significant part of the key to change that situation.

Especially considering #2, I find it hard to believe that the test is intrinsically biased against women.  So why is this disparity so?  Our researchers give us four options, and my gut tells me that the second one is the most likely.

My reasoning is simple.  Generally speaking, most engineering students take their first exam (the FE exam) while they’re in undergraduate school.  After they they acquire four years of experience, they can apply for the privilege of taking the P&P exam.  If they pass it and meet other requirements, they obtain their Professional Engineers license.  For most people, that means that the critical moment takes place in their mid- to late twenties.  Millennials aren’t as “progressive” on sorting out tasks between spouses or partners as some might have you believe.  That time in life is also the same time when many marry, have children, etc., and the work associated with those events falls harder on women.  Thus the first opportunity to take the exam takes place at a point in life which is less opportune for women than it is for men.

So what is to be done?  Do we need a special accommodation?  The answer is “no.”  Since venting pet peeves seems to be the thing on this site these days, let me vent one of mine: there is no cogent reason why we should force people to wait several years out from their academic studies to take the P&P exam.  This exam is supposed to reflect experience, but a reality check is in order: it’s just another academic exercise like just most any other test.  Fortunately change is in the wind, as this statement from the National Society of Professional Engineers indicates:

Until relatively recently, candidates for licensure as a professional engineer have needed to gain four years of approved work experience before taking the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Exam. In recent years, however, attitudes within the profession toward the early taking of the PE exam have begun to shift. In 2013, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) removed from its Model Law the requirement that candidates earn four years of experience before taking the exam. Separating the experience requirement from eligibility for taking the PE exam is sometimes called decoupling. For the National Society of Professional Engineers, as stated in Position Statement No. 1778,

“Licensing boards and governing jurisdictions are encouraged to provide the option of taking the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam as soon as an applicant for licensure believes they are prepared to take the exam. The applicant would not be eligible for licensure until meeting all requirements for licensure— 4-year Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology/Engineering Accreditation Commission accredited degree, passing the Fundamentals of Engineering exam and the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam, and 4 years of progressive engineering experience.”

The NSPE would have us think that this concept is a novelty, but that’s not really the case.  When I was an undergraduate at Texas A&M University in the 1970’s, Texas allowed people to take both exams before graduation; our own NSPE student chapter strongly encouraged that, and I did it myself.  Taking the P&P exam not only gets the exam away from major life events in early adulthood, it also eliminates a good deal of remedial work trying to remember things one learned in school but had forgotten in the years before the exam.

I think that, if we do not obscure our thinking with trendy concepts and look at things realistically, we can solve this disparity by making a change that will benefit both men and women and improve our profession.  If this disparity provides motivation to move the process of “decoupling” forward, then so be it.  It’s a change that’s overdue.

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