About Us : About IWITTS : Contact Us : Sitemap : WomenTech World Home

Back to: 

Engineer Main Menu

Biographies & Stories Mainpage
 "Getting it Right"
 ASEE Prism Magazine
 Attracting women to engineering is tough, but some schools have found a formula
 that seems to work.

 March, 2001 -- BY MARGARET MANNIX
In 1985, women earned 15 percent of the bachelor's degrees in engineering. Information collected by ASEE indicates that just over 21 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering in 1999 went to women. There are far more women entering law, medicine, and business-fields previously overwhelmingly dominated by men. No wonder the commission noted that the U.S. science, engineering, and technology workforce "is comprised mainly of white males, with small percentages of women and minority group members."

Yet there are plenty of women and minorities in the general workforce, they just don't have the skills to thrive in the new, technology-driven economy. Facing a shortage of such workers, warns business leaders, means the nation may not be able to remain competitive in the global marketplace. What's so alarming, say the report's authors, is that the U.S. "risks losing its economic and intellectual preeminence."

Recruiting female educators like Mary Roth, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Lafayette College, help colleges retail more women students.
That's a heavy burden for those on the front line of higher education to bear. Some engineering schools have excelled in upping the ranks of women in their midst. But trying to pin down exactly how they achieve those enviable percentages is a science in itself. There's no magic formula and certainly no such thing as a silver bullet. In some cases, it just means being in the right place at the right time. In others, it takes an aggressive recruiting effort.

Engineering schools with high numbers of female students say the best, albeit the most obvious, way to attract female students is to increase the number of female faculty members. "We have quadrupled the number of female faculty in the past six to seven years," says Ioannis Miaoulis, dean of the Tufts University College of Engineering. "The message is out there that women succeed at Tufts," says Mialouis, who boasts a faculty that is 16 percent female and a school that is 33 percent female. At the undergraduate level, the percentages are even higher with women accounting for nearly 40 percent of the engineering graduates.

That goal is echoed by James Schaffer, director of engineering at Lafayette College, where 31 percent of the bachelor's degrees in engineering last year went to women. "We work very hard to recruit and retain quality female engineering faculty," says Schaffer.

"They serve as wonderful mentors and role models for our women students." Janie Fouke, dean of the School of Engineering at Michigan State University, says she and her counterparts play a very important role. "It's very difficult to go someplace new and scary like a new career without having someone ahead of you to see how the path is lighted." Michigan State awarded 160 bachelor's degrees in engineering to women last year, 26 percent of the total. Trailblazers like Fouke also serve as an inspiration to prospective and new female students.
"It's sort of a 'If they can do it, I can do it,'" says Kay C. Dee, an assistant professor in the department of biomedical engineering at Tulane University, where 28 percent of the bachelor's degrees in engineering were earned by women last year. "It's an immediate, visible confirmation that they wouldn't be out of place. It's important to dispel the myth that if they are going to become an engineer, they are going to be one woman out of 300 men." "It's the willingness to deal with students on an informal basis that is extremely important for us," says Schaffer. Jane Daniels, director of the women in engineering program at Purdue University, places a particular emphasis on that task. "I certainly do a lot of individual talking with students so they know me, they know my face, they know how to get a hold of me," says Daniels. "They do feel that tie, that familiarity with people on campus." Fouke agrees and also makes a point of spending time with her students. "You don't have to go to every club meeting," she says. "But it's so important just to spend time chatting or loitering in the hallway with students."

Providing that comfort level is key to retaining female students, say many colleges. At Lafayette, faculty members have formal advising duties, but Schaffer believes it is the school's open-door policy that really succeeds. He notes that each time he walks past a particular female colleague's office, there is always a student inside.

Students in the chemicalengineering department at the University of Colorado work on new biomaterials to repair damage in joints.

Their Own Kind

Like money attracts money, a critical mass of female students acts as an excellent recruiting tool. John Birge, dean of the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University, says his school's open house activities for prospective students and parents are heavily weighted with women students. One recent weekend, says Birge, two out of three students involved were female, and parents reacted positively. "Our best p.r. is our current students," Birge says. "They are the best salespeople we can find." Indeed, a mere glance at the industrial engineering students at the University of Oklahoma-51 percent of whom are women-can make an impression. High-school girls "are more apt to say this is a friendly place, even if only subconsciously," says Donna Shirley, assistant dean of engineering for advanced program development at the university.

Classes loaded with women can also aid retention rates. "When you have small numbers of women, it's a very isolating experience," says Jill Tietjen, director of the women in engineering program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The more female students enrolled in a class, the more confident they feel in their major and their career choice. Outside organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers can also foster a supportive environment by sponsoring clubs and functions on and off campus for female students.

Some engineering schools say their strong numbers are partially due to plain old luck-luck to be part of a university that has no trouble attracting a diverse population. At the University of Notre Dame, for example, the university student population is almost evenly divided between the sexes. "I think it's a natural evolution,"says John Uhran, associate dean of the College of Engineering. "We have a fairly diverse university, and I think that's attractive to a lot of women," says Northwestern's Birge. "We also happen to have strengths in areas that I think maybe appeal to women. Our industrial engineering department is quite strong, and biomedical and life science." What's more, Northwestern's engineering school has a variety of joint programs, from music and journalism to law and business. "A lot of these programs probably attract more than the average percentage of women," Birge says. "The medical one is the most popular. I bet half of the students in that program are women."

University of Notre Dame chemical engineering professor Salma Saddawi assists students with an experimant involving the oxidation of concrete.

Students are on their way to class at the Technological Institute, home of Northwestern's Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Hands On

Some universities are creating courses that will hook students into engineering faster by giving them a taste of how dynamic such a career can be-a strategy that helps keep female students on the engineering track. For example, a first-year engineering student at Tufts University can enroll in mini courses on technology that carry half the credit of a regular course. The purpose: to relay engineering principles with real-world examples. "They oftentimes stem out of the personal interests and hobbies of the faculty," says Miaoulis. For example, a student can learn the design and performance of musical instruments. "These courses make engineering very exciting and bring it closer to everyday life," says Miaoulis.

Lafayette officials say its college of engineering benefits from an academic program that combines engineering and liberals arts. "I think a rich liberal arts tradition acts in our favor," says Schaffer. "All of our courses for all of our students tend to have the social, ethical, environmental, economic, and political issues of technology. That's a plus for us for women students," he says, noting that many women are attracted to the socially responsible aspects of technology. "They want to make medicine and clean the environment," says Schaffer. That's not to say men don't like to do the same things. Generally speaking, though, says Schaffer, female students seem to embrace the added dimension that Lafayette offers.

Universities are also finding that female students like the trend away from the standing-lecture based teaching system. For example, Lafayette's chemical engineering class used to consist of three one-hour lectures a week. Now the class meets for two one-hour lectures plus a two-hour nontraditional session. One week it might be a demonstration in the lab, the next week it might be a problem-solving session done by the class in small groups. "One of the keys to recruiting and retaining a diverse body of students is to realize there are a lot of ways for people to learn," says Schaffer. "You are giving students with every learning style a chance to gather the information they need to be successful. Everybody is getting a little bit of their preferred learning style."
Many believe that the embracing of teamwork by engineering colleges is another factor in attracting female students."You don't just sit in the classroom or hover over a computer," Shirley says. "Women like to work in teams. They like to work with other people. When you have a team experience, it's more satisfying." In addition, colleges stress that diversity inspires creativity and productivity. "When you have a team that consists of people from different backgrounds, the design is better," says Miaoulis. The same goes for those ubiquitous club projects dominated by men, such as the racing or solar car clubs. Shirley wants to institutionalize those clubs so more women will participate. "We have trouble getting young women to go into those projects," says Shirley. "They get a little bit intimidated. They haven't grown up building motorcycles."

As children, girls also haven't typically dreamed of becoming engineers either. So Shirley and her colleagues at Oklahoma have designed a freshman seminar entitled "The 21st Century Woman: Tomorrow's Woman in Science, Engineering, and Technology" to address that vacuum. The course grew out of research that revealed that women were declaring engineering as majors but graduating in totally different fields.

"We believe a large part of it is because the kids get discouraged," says Shirley. Topics of discussion include career versus family issues, sexual harassment, and job opportunities. The class provides an awareness of the difficulties faced by women pursuing a career in the sciences, as well as advice on helping them cope with the pressure of being in fields dominated by men. "We also emphasize that with engineering you are working with people and solving problems," says Shirley. "We at least give them a flavor of what engineering is."

Lafayette College engineering student Kenda Roberts talks with David Veshosky, associate professor of civil and environment engineering.

An engineering student at the University of Colorado at Boulder works on her aerodynamics project.

Meeting the Parents

At Purdue, Daniels finds that those explanations are helpful to parents of prospective female students too. That's why parents are included in many of the women in engineering functions. "We probably have an equal number of parents coming as students," says Daniels, who assuages parents' fears that their daughters are choosing a career that will lead to them denying their femininity and forgoing marriage and family. "I take the parents and meet with them separately and take two hours and answer questions. We spend a lot of time assuring the parents that their daughters can have a good experience."

Daniels says she doesn't hear those same concerns coming from parents of would-be male engineering students. "The parents seem much more inclined if they have a son coming to Purdue to sort of let them do their own thing. It's a conservative state. I don't hear those kind of questions coming from parents of sons, because they aren't doing something different. They are still concerned about their little girls."

At Lafayette, Schaffer makes sure that prospective female high-school students, who are typically sent over to his department after speaking with an admissions officer, chat with a female faculty member, if possible. First, students are matched with a professor in their desired field of study, such as mechanical engineering. "Second will be to try to match students up by gender or ethnic background," he says. "It places a bit of a burden on the women who are on our faculty," says Schaffer. "When we recruit faculty, we ask if this is something that you like to do."

Introducing engineering to an even younger contingent also seems to ratchet up the female ranks. At Purdue, for example, high-school girls can participate in career programs designed specifically for them. "It's a real advantage to get them here on campus," says Daniels. "I feel like if we can get them here we are much more likely to get them to come back as an undergraduate student." Last year, the school hired a director of precollege programs for the women in engineering program. "She is going to be starting a lot more programs for high-school girls and young girls so we can start working on the pool a little bit younger," says Daniels.

Some experts believe that lesson should be taught to all ages. "In the U.S., a lot of people don't even know what engineers do," says Gail Mattson, president of the Society of Women Engineers. Or they think of engineers as these Dilbert-like drones confined to cubicles, void of passion and creativity. A lot of educators are really concerned about the image of engineering, particularly when it comes to attracting women to the field. "We have been as high as 27 to 28 percent and that has definitely been dropping," says Notre Dame's Uhran, who notes the current rate is about 22 percent. "We have been wondering why this is happening." That's the million-dollar question these days.

University of Notre Dame chemical engineering seniors monitor a bioreactor that they built themselves. Many educators believe that working in teams is satisfying to students of both sexes.
 Margaret Mannix is a freelance writer living in suburban Washington, D.C.

Reprinted with permission from ASEE Prism Magazine


Copyright 2010 Institute for Women in Trades, Technology & Science | http://www.iwitts.com