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Sheila Widnall

Former Secretary of the U.S. Air Force and honorary WPI degree recipient

Sheila Widnall will receive an honorary doctor of engineering degree from WPI in 2004. She was the first woman appointed to the engineering faculty at MIT, and the first woman to head a branch of the military, serving as secretary of the U.S. Air Force under President Bill Clinton. Her expertise in aerodynamics made her a valuable addition to the team investigating the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia, which released its report in August. She is a leader in matters of sexual harassment, discrimination and academic integrity.

What were the greatest challenges for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board? What will its findings mean for the future of the space program?

The challenges in conducting the accident investigation were many. First, this was a high-profile case with significant public, congressional and administration interest. The standards for establishing the “facts” were very high. The board needed to be totally independent of NASA, yet work closely with it to obtain the data we needed to establish the facts upon which to base our recommendations. Our recommendations speak to the importance of insuring safety in the manned space program. As our report describes, NASA has been under enormous schedule and cost pressure, has constantly over-promised the technology it could deliver, and has shortchanged safety to accomplish other goals. Our recommendations are directed to establish an independent and effective voice for safety within the manned space flight program.

How has the role of women in the military changed?

Women are an extremely important part of today’s military. We saw that in Desert Storm, and in all operations since. In the Air Force virtually all roles are open to women. The exceptions are special-ops helicopter pilots and the PJs—pararescue jumpers who slide down ropes into combat situations to aid ground troops. [See the movie “Black Hawk Down” for an example of a PJ mission.] Today’s military could not function without women. To my way of thinking, the military offers substantial opportunity to women, and they are evaluated on their contributions to the mission.

Should women be involved in combat roles?

The issue is the ability to do the job, not to remain unharmed in a combat role. Women can be fighter pilots, fly all aircraft types, go into all combat situations in the Air Force, except as mentioned before.

Ground combat is a complex role. It requires strength, group bonding, self-sacrifice, and focus on the mission. The nation’s current belief is that women might be a distraction in some small-group combat roles, detracting from the mission. On the other hand, in modern warfare, the front lines are less well-defined, and military women often find themselves in harm’s way. Their performance has been exemplary.

What is the biggest misconception about sexual harassment?

That if the perpetrator didn’t mean it, it’s not harassment. It’s the victim who defines the situation. For example, one of our professors insisted on putting offensive pictures on his door, which upset the women graduate students. I had to explain to him that it was not what he thought but what the women students thought that was the controlling variable. Also, technically, harassment requires a supervisor-subordinate relationship of some sort.

Is it true that women think and learn differently?

I believe that women are better integrators, more holistic in their approach to problem solving. They are not satisfied to spend three years learning the bits and pieces, but want to see how these fit together to solve important societal problems. I believe that a revolution in undergraduate engineering education is required not just for women but to improve the effectiveness of engineering in this country. Unless we develop more of a holistic approach to problem solving, we will become a niche profession.

What can engineering schools do to bring more women into the field?

The most important thing MIT did was to admit more women. MIT developed data to show that the math SAT underpredicts the performance of women. With this information, we raised our percentage of women students from 26 to 38 in one year. It’s been climbing ever since. There are important critical mass effects when the percentage rises and this tends to improve even further the performance of women students.

What gave you the confidence to pursue and succeed in this career path? Were there any obstacles?

My father was very supportive, as was my mother. My mother worked when I was young and that’s the model I had for my life. When I encountered obstacles, I went sideways.

—JKM

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Last modified: Aug 31, 2004, 17:07 EDT
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