UW News

July 14, 2022

UW professor’s new book and course on sexual harassment in engineering seek to disrupt culture of silence

Denise Wilson, a University of Washington professor of electrical and computer engineering, and her colleague Jennifer VanAntwerp of Calvin University are co-authors of “Sex, Gender, and Engineering: Harassment at Work and in School.” Wilson will teach a course to go along with the book next spring.Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Denise Wilson, a University of Washington professor of electrical and computer engineering, has experienced sexual harassment and assault in the male-dominated field of engineering.

In her early days as an undergraduate, she was expected to meet male students’ sexual needs. In graduate school, she was subjected to sexist comments, and in her academic and industry career, she faced inappropriate physical contact in the field and at academic conferences.

“I thought things had changed,” Wilson said. “But then I still hear similar stories from women today.”

Wilson is working to end the prevalence of sexual harassment in engineering. She and her colleague Jennifer VanAntwerp of Calvin University are co-authors of “Sex, Gender, and Engineering: Harassment at Work and in School,” published in April by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

In addition, Wilson will be teaching a department-level class, EE397, to go along with the book in spring 2023.

“There are huge holes to understanding what’s going on in the workplace,” Wilson said. “The book and the course are about raising student awareness and helping them understand how to strategize toward a better work environment no matter where they are in the hierarchy.”

The book starts by setting the groundwork for why sexual harassment is wrong, describing its legal aspects and the harmful effects on victims. It then examines the groups impacted and what harassment looks like in the university and the workplace, before moving on to contemporary factors, such as COVID-19, U.S. presidents, and social movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. It concludes by looking at solutions for tackling harassment, with a focus on civility training and other strategies that positively motivate people to do better and intervene if they see harassment occur.

This book isn’t a traditional textbook. It uses anecdotes to help connect students with the experience of sexual harassment.

“In the culture of engineering, there’s a lot of pressure to not speak about difficulty,” Wilson said. “If you’re a good engineer and you’re underrepresented, you tough it out. How do we overcome that? I think it’s only by talking about it and by telling stories, along with the data.”

Wilson said there is an unwritten rule about harassment in engineering to just “shut up and deal with it.” This message is conveyed not only by the male-dominant majority but also by those who have advanced in the field while quietly enduring abuse. This tendency to keep things quiet explains why things haven’t changed, even as gender representation in engineering has diversified, she said.

Karen Thomas-Brown, the associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion in the UW College of Engineering, said Wilson’s and VanAntwerp’s book is effective for “undergraduate students who may have never experienced harassment or heard about the law. Students are going to be able to say, ‘Oh, so this is not just a bunch of women saying you shouldn’t do this to us. There are laws.’”

Thomas-Brown — who, as the lead of the college’s Office of Inclusive Excellence, plans to use a deliberate, data-driven approach to create change “top-down and inside-out” — is creating a suite of required college-level DEI courses, including a general course on diversity in society, a course on race, and a course on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in engineering.

A fourth course — on sex, gender and harassment, paired with Wilson’s and VanAntwerp’s book — will be added to the suite. Next spring’s department-level course will serve as a pilot, assessing what holes there might be in the book or course before rolling it out to the entire college.

Wilson is hopeful about the potential for change in engineering.

“Most people I know in this field — they want a good culture,” she said. “There’s a lot of kindness in engineering that is often hidden under our norms and our image. And I think that we should capitalize on that kindness and concern for society to build a better future internally.”

She wants to create the change for her field that she’s undergone herself. Wilson has come a long way from the young woman who kept quiet about the harassment she experienced.

“I cannot emphasize enough how I’ve changed in the process of writing this book,” she said. “It’s much harder to shut me up. I’m much more outspoken. I am more willing to be culturally uncomfortable. I learned the only way I’m going to do my best and contribute to change is just to be who I am and speak. I have learned to keep speaking even when there’s silence on the other end.”