By all accounts, Katherine Jeffery is a college admissions officer’s dream. The Lubbock, Texas, high school senior excels in calculus and chemistry, maintains a 99% average in physics, and, with a love of French history, shows strong intellectual curiosity. “She’s just the sort of person I would love to see go into engineering,” says Pam Eibeck, a mechanical engineer—and Jeffery’s mother. But comments to that effect are usually met with “Oh yuk, Mom.” Like an increasing number of bright young women with a knack for math and science, Katherine Jeffery would rather become a doctor.
As dean of Texas Tech University’s college of engineering, Eibeck knows all too well that her daughter’s attitude is indicative of a larger crisis in the profession and a curious paradox that seems to be taking shape. The latest ASEE numbers show that while the ranks of women faculty – and even deans – are up, albeit slightly, the percentage of women who received bachelor’s degrees in engineering dipped to just 19 percent last year—the lowest representation in nearly 10 years.
The near future doesn’t look any rosier: Women account for a little more than 17 percent of students enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs, compared with 57 percent of the total undergrad population, which is expected to reach 60 percent by 2016.
Meanwhile, women made up more than 22 percent of those enrolled in graduate programs and nearly 20 percent of assistant professors in engineering. Women now head 33 of the country’s 359 accredited engineering programs. What do these conflicting trends say about the conventional wisdom that greater numbers of female engineering faculty will translate into more women students? And, after decades of recruitment efforts, what will it take to attract more women like Katherine Jefferey to the profession?
One theory is that the increase in the number of female faculty means little. “The changes are too small to really make a difference,” says Betty Shanahan, executive director of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). “We need to do something dramatically different.”
Others call for patience, however, suggesting that it is a matter of building momentum. “As more women rise into leadership roles within engineering colleges, they’ll have the opportunity to affect policy, procedures and programs to the same degree that their male counterparts have for decades,” argues Margaret Bailey, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the women-in-engineering program at Rochester Institute of Technology. “We shouldn’t expect that simply having more women in these roles will quickly yield an increase in female students.”
Eibeck agrees that things aren’t going to change overnight. “Just because it’s me sitting behind this desk is not huge,” she says. “The problem is so systemic.” She believes it is crucial to address the low numbers—at Texas Tech, female students form only 10 percent of the engineering population—yet suggests that there is only so much that deans can do. She notes that in her own case, “the reality is that my time is spread extremely thin.” After becoming dean three years ago, only now has Eibeck been able to focus on a diversity initiative.
Not a Draw for Students
And while research shows that women faculty have a positive impact on the retention of female students, their ability to attract them in the first place is less clear. “Having more women deans and women faculty is a great recruiting tool to get more women faculty,” says Leslie Collins, chair of the electrical and computer engineering department at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering. So it’s easy to see a correlation to the increasing number of women PhDs. But, argues Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, “there’s not a lot of connection between the number of women faculty and [number of] undergrads.” While she’s able to interact with numerous applicants and students, that kind of contact is nearly impossible at a larger school. “My true sense is that it’s the enrollment, not retention, that’s the problem. It’s really the high schools that have an impact.”
But the chances of high school students—female or male—being exposed to engineering or engineers are slim. “Teachers and guidance counselors don’t understand engineering themselves, so they have a hard time characterizing what can be an exciting career,” explains Eibeck. Not much has changed, she says, since her own high school guidance counselor encouraged her to become an accountant because she was good in math. Instead, Eibeck stumbled into engineering on her way to a medical degree. (Becoming a doctor was ruled out after she fainted while observing orthopedic surgery.)
Is there, as well, a subtle form of discrimination at work in directing girls away from the kind of preparation they need? At SWE there is concern that this may be so. In a position paper calling for a wider understanding of the landmark Title IX anti-discrimination law, the SWE notes, “An honors math or physics class full of boys does not, by itself, violate Title IX. But if that condition occurs because the teacher in charge of the class actively discourages girls from participating, or because counselors routinely steer girls away from such demanding courses, it is more than prejudice – it is discrimination.”
Boys still outnumber girls in advanced physics. They also generally outperform girls on the math Scholastic Aptitude Test. The national Academy of Sciences, in its 2007 report, “Beyond Bias And Barriers,” attributes this gap to cultural factors.
More Math & Science
That said, in recent years many secondary schools have made strides in getting the message out on the importance of math and science. “Twenty years ago, there really was an issue that girls were not getting math and science in high school. That is essentially gone,” says Cinda-Sue Davis, who has directed the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program at the University of Michigan since 1984. Girls are now just as likely as boys to take AP calculus and more likely to take advanced biology and chemistry.
As a result, the pool of female students is stronger, but so is the competition for them. “There are plenty of girls prepared to study engineering,” says Eibeck, “they just don’t want to.” Research shows that girls are drawn to careers they feel positively impact humanity. Medicine is an obvious choice. Indeed, the number of women in med school now exceeds that of men. Yet the irony is that behind many health improvements are teams of engineers, such as the Duke University students working with Collins to develop better cochlear implants and assist hearing. “We haven’t done a very good job in this country explaining the value of these occupations,” says Davis. “You have to sort of learn accidentally, from family or friends or peers, and that’s pretty happenstance.”
Although everyone agrees that engineering needs an image overhaul, the realities of being female in a male-dominated profession may not yet be ready for close inspection. Young women harbor the belief that you can’t maintain a family and an engineering career at the same time, says Nadine Aubry, head of Carnegie Mellon’s Mechanical Engineering Department. And in truth, nurturing her career and raising three children, now teenagers, hasn’t been easy. Early on, Aubry struggled to find day care and had to take her kids to work on more than one occasion. “We have to make sure people are going to have help, both moms and dads,” she insists. Shanahan observes that female faculty can also face more pressure to support activities outside their field of study. “They have to do all their research and teaching and then get asked to participate in other ways, like outreach and committees.” Collins says that once graduate students see the demands of her schedule, they’re apt to say, “I don’t want your life.”
Teamwork Appeals to Women
There are bright spots, however. Some programs are graduating up to twice the national average of females. According to the ASEE data, more than a third of the engineering bachelor’s degrees at Brown, Tufts, and University of Miami were awarded to women. And at Harvey Mudd College, women made up 43 percent of the freshman engineering class last fall. Mudd’s President Klawe says the school’s engineering program attracts women through its emphasis on social sciences and humanities, and real world applications and interactive teamwork—all of which resonate with women and the way they learn. What’s more, like most private institutions, Mudd is in a better position to recruit women because it has more control over the admissions process than public schools. “Private schools are looking at a much deeper and broader set of characteristics,” notes Klawe. “That’s much harder to do at a place where they’re getting 20,000 applications for 1,000 spots.”
Yet the most notable discrepancies in the latest data show up among the different engineering disciplines. Women account for 36 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in chemical engineering; nearly 41 percent in biomedical engineering; and more than 44 percent of those in environmental engineering. In contrast, electrical, mechanical, and computer disciplines have languished, with 14, 13 and 11 percent women, respectively. Again, experts blame poor image for the low numbers. Davis says students groan that computers are “just so geeky,” unlike the biomedical or environmental fields, which are perceived more as service professions. Says Klawe, “There’s a complete disconnect with what the general public thinks engineers do, particularly computer engineers.”
In fact, polls reveal that Americans continue to have a limited understanding of engineering, perceiving it to be a boring or “nerdy” profession, and believing that it has less prestige than professions such as medicine, science, and teaching, according to the National Academy of Engineering. These perceptions persist despite decades of outreach and other programs. In 2002, NAE estimated that more than $400 million is spent annually to promote greater public understanding of the profession..
Some say it’s time for a more coordinated and measured push. SWE, for example, is developing ways to measure the effectiveness of outreach programs. And the NAE is working on a standardized campaign to raise public awareness. “The engineering community is spending a lot of money in a relatively uncoordinated way and there’s not a lot of evidence that those efforts are having much of an impact,” says Greg Pearson, who is spearheading the NAE program.
At the same time, however, advocates like Shanahan believe that universities need to make diversity an even greater priority. She calls for institutionalizing more inclusive searches for faculty and supports for women. Bailey agrees: Academic leaders should work to stimulate programs within their colleges that can promote gender diversity, she says. “If successful, they can effect change in demographics among their student body.”
At the University of Michigan, for example, the Strategies and Tactics for Recruiting to Improve Diversity and Excellence (STRIDE) committee is comprised of full-tenured professors who study the latest research on discrimination and lead workshops to educate their peers on conducting unbiased searches. Hiring fairly can be far more difficult and nuanced than most people think, says Davis. She points to research that found that the number of women in orchestras greatly increased once they started blindly auditioning candidates. The impact of STRIDE has been felt university-wide, bearing out the correlation between faculty recruitment and undergraduate numbers. Today women make up an above-average 25 percent of UM engineering undergrads. “It’s really powerful. We know that a diverse environment in general helps all students to learn more and learn better,” says Davis. “Our students have developed a greater sense of multicultural competency.”
Brochures Don’t Match Reality
Yet a deeper shift also needs to happen in the classroom, says Eibeck. “What we’ve tried to do is show engineering is really about how to solve problems, but there’s a long way to go between what we have in brochures and reality.” Even today, the types of problems engineering students are asked to solve are largely male-focused. Eibeck recalls her own surprise when she met a young woman at a recruiting event who wanted to become a chemical engineer so she could develop cosmetics. “Do we ever talk about this as an application? No, but that’s a real part of life for half the population.” By diminishing the importance of such concerns, “There’s a subtle but real message to girls that they don’t fit in.”
Eibeck believes a more flexible curriculum would help make engineering more appealing to girls. It’s no secret that the rigid, lecture-based classes that form the core of most engineering students’ first two years can be daunting, especially for women—and men—who don’t have a strong understanding of what engineers actually do.
Eibeck points to the fact that as more women infiltrated law and medical schools, the teaching styles changed to suit the way they learn. Some law schools, for instance, have modified the traditional Socratic teaching method, in which a student is called on to defend a position through a series of questions and answers. Some legal scholars argued that the method put women at a disadvantage because they tend be more reflective and take longer to formulate answers in class. Some professors now allow more time between raising a question and finding a volunteer. And at medical schools, many more women’s health subjects are now being taught compared with a generation ago. Overall, there’s a trend toward more collaborative learning in professional schools, including more teamwork and problem-based learning. Says Eibeck, “That’s the deeper change we need to see.”
As for her daughter, Eibeck still holds out hope that she’ll change her mind, and she’s been trying to steer Katherine Jeffery toward biomedical engineering. Lately, the Lubbock high school senior has gotten into “Myth Busters,” the Discovery Channel television show that uses scientific method to test the validity of urban legends. “I told her that the ‘Myth Busters’ are really engineers in disguise. Now she’s actually thinking about it.”
Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C.