[Letter] More female students? Here’s a strategy

The Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics & Computer Science (EEMCS) is looking for ideas on how to increase its number of female students. TU Delft policy advisor, Geneviève Girard, thinks the university should ‘play the societal impact card’. She sent dean John Schmitz this letter.

Dear Prof. Schmitz,

I read about your wish to increase female student numbers at the EEMCS Faculty in the latest TU Delta newsletter. I could not help responding to this issue, which is pretty dear to me and on which, as a former researcher and teacher for 15 years at two universities (Leiden and Amsterdam), I have been thinking about for many years.

There are probably many elements that may contribute to making academia attractive to females. In the specific area of mathematics and computer sciences, it is my opinion that the most effective strategy (although probably requiring a huge investment, but totally worth it if you ask me) to attract women students would be to play the ‘societal impact’ card.

EEMCS is at the core of a major societal change happening right now all around us, i.e. the rise of Artificial Intelligence and automation in general. This raises many legitimate concerns which Europe, and in particular the Netherlands, should voice and act on very fast. One important course of action is to educate tomorrow’s engineers in a way that stresses the importance of ethics and societal impact much more than is currently done. This new emphasis would probably massively attract women. As previously reported by our colleague Aldert Kamp of Aerospace Engineering in his blog, an informal survey at many American universities showed a clear correlation between female enrolment in engineering studies and curricula with strong societal purpose.

‘Ethics should be taught not only in theory but also in practice’

The juncture between the imperial societal (or even historical) need for the ethical control of AI development and the EEMCS’s (and in general the whole TU Delft’s) need for more females represents a challenging opportunity. I strongly believe that seriously ‘revamping’ our curricula by integrating ethics throughout the teaching would be an important part of the solution. It would go a long way but would require much more than just adding a couple of ethics modules’ here and there. This is already being done but is not really convincing for the students.

I believe that ethics should be taught not only in theory but also in practice. It would require an important cultural change and would be a long-term effort. The modules should consistently embed ethical aspects and actively involve students in discussions around that topic. No student should work on any project (theoretical or practical) throughout their curriculum at TU Delft without taking its specific ethical aspects into consideration and really thinking, reading and writing about it; discussing it; and acting on it.

Last but not least, I think that profiling TU Delft as the first Ethical Technical University in the world would be fantastic and would not only attract more female students but make the student, teacher and researcher profiles much more diverse. It would also be a bold and honourable move to take our responsibilities as a prestigious technical university in the very technical world of the 21st century.

Yours sincerely,

Geneviève Girard

Geneviève Girard is a policy advisor in the TU Delft department of corporate policy affairs. 

This letter is a revised version of the letter Girard sent to EEMCS dean John Schmitz.

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