On Gender Bias in Admission

In admission information sessions, we receive a wide range of questions, though there are many that come up time and time again. For example: do you prefer the SAT or the ACT? (we accept both, no preference); can I submit an additional letter of recommendation? (yes, up to one); if I receive an outside scholarship, can I use it at Olin? (congratulations and yes!). Most of these answers are straightforward and easily understood. One that requires more explanation is “it is easier for women to be admitted to Olin?”
I’m never shy about this question. Olin has a commitment to equal membership in the class of students who identify as male and female by legal sex (hurray!), and we have a talented pool of applicants to sustain this (double hurray!). Occasionally, this reply prompts a follow up: “so the applicant pool is balanced by legal sex?” Well, no, Olin’s applicant pool is generally between 25-30% female by legal sex (which is fairly consistent with other engineering programs and could actually be considered quite strong in light of the fact Olin offers only 2 of the top 10 engineering majors chosen by women). This is when the brow of the inquirer begins to furrow and a more nuanced answer is needed (stay with me, I’ll get there).
Last spring I received an email with the subject line: Addressing Comments of Admission Gender Bias? The question mark was part of the subject line. The email arrived on May 1. We had just wrapped up enrolling the Class of 2021; I assumed it was from a student (or more likely a parent) who was displeased with their admission decision. But it wasn’t. The email came from a group of current students who identify as women who have had their enrollment at Olin questioned due to a perception that women have an “easier” time getting in.
So, I met with them. They shared stories of parents they’ve met giving campus tours, male-identified classmates from high school, and teammates here at Olin who have, intentionally or unintentionally, seeded doubt in minds of these women. They shared moments of laughing off a comment, ignoring a slight. Justifying your place, whether at Olin or anywhere for any reason, is exhausting, distracting, demoralizing. These students acknowledged these moments didn’t occur every day, but it was often enough that they needed answers. I can identify with these students; I have come up with lots of ways to respond to comments like “wow, aren’t you young for a dean?” or “you are a dean? Atta girl!”
Here’s the more refined and detailed answer to “it is easier for women to be admitted to Olin?”:
First of all, it is not easy for anyone to get into Olin. We have a holistic, intentional, multi-layered admission process that, as Olin students well know, demands a lot in the application and in person. It is a highly individualized process. We hold high standards for academic achievement, potential, aptitude, effort, values, and drive. Every offer of admission is rooted in our desire to see you- each and every one of you- as a member of the Olin community. It’s detailed, it’s personal, it’s messy, it’s highly selective and it is incredibly demanding of the faculty and staff that participate in this process, but it is, in fact, the absolute best part of my job.
But is it easier for students who check “female” for legal sex on their Common Application to be admitted to Olin? No. No. A thousand times no. Is it more probable? More statistically likely? Sure. Herein lies the perception problem. Let’s do the math: about three-quarters of the applicant pool identify as male and approximately one half of the enrolling class identify as female (again, by legal sex). Many people stop there and declare, “Gender bias!” It’s easier for women to get in! Would that it were so simple…
We must be careful not to assume that the size of an applicant pool, or a subset of an applicant pool, is an indicator of application quality or admissibility. The breakdown of the applicant pool actually has little to nothing to do with who is admitted in a highly personalized admission process. It is the individual applicants and what they will bring to the Olin community that matters. The detail most important to the question at hand is: applicants who are invited to Candidates’ Weekends are equally qualified based on our admission process, regardless of legal sex. Every Candidate has cleared a consistent standard for academic preparation and potential success at Olin. And after Candidates’ Weekends (and the extensive and individualized feedback we receive on every participant), the Candidates who are ultimately admitted to Olin are equally qualified based on our admission process, regardless of legal sex. We are fortunate to attract an applicant pool that makes this possible. We also benefit from an admission process that is so individualized, that we can build an intentional class one amazing person at a time.
The worst part of my job is that there are far more deserving applicants in our pool than there are spaces at Olin. This means that incredible folks of both sexes are denied admission to Olin. Are more of them male? Yes, because there are more males in the applicant pool to begin with. But this fact, in no way should reflect on women who are here. Full stop.
I’ve focused on legal sex here, but you can insert just about any biographic or demographic info here and the process holds up: you’re all here because of who YOU are and what you bring to campus. If anyone ever questions that, send them to me.