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Female students are hard to find in engineering technology programs but schools are working to address the problem.

-By Barbara Mathias-Riegel

PRIL THOMS is both an anomaly and paradigm. As far as she knows, she was the only girl in her high school graduating class of 550 students in Eau Claire, Wis., to go on to seek a degree in engineering technology. Even now that she's in her second year at Michigan Tech (MTU), she's one of only four women in classes of 40 to 60 students. The gender imbalance doesn't faze Thoms, she's more interested in pursuing her love of mechanics, an interest born during childhood time spent making model cars, playing with Legos, and drawing up imaginary house plans.

Encouraged by her high school drafting class teacher to look into engineering, Thoms attended an expo at an engineering firm and picked up some brochures about MTU, a school she knew nothing about. It was on the MTU Web site that she discovered a field totally new to her—engineering technology.

“I like working with the computer and playing with my hands, so it was a factor in my decision to go into engineering technology, rather than engineering,” says Thoms. “I also like the fact that a lot of companies want someone with hands-on experience…sure I wouldn't mind getting paid more, like the engineers, but it's not that much more money that it makes a difference. I would rather have a job I like.”
The figures differ widely among schools, but the average female enrollment in engineering technology is 11 percent or lower, an alarming figure when compared with the 22 percent average female enrollment in engineering. Why are there so fewer women in engineering technology than in engineering?

The undisputed fact that a girl's fear of math, usually established during early schooling, keeps her from engineering and the sciences, applies to engineering technology as well. But the question then becomes, if engineering technology's math requirements are less stringent than engineering, why aren't more women drawn to it?

“The problem stems from the belief that technology is a man's world and a woman loses her femininity if she dares to enter it,” explains Michael L. Holcombe, assistant professor of electrical engineering technology at Purdue University. “And that's just not true.”

In addition, Holcombe says, there is a lack of awareness of the engineering technology field in general. “School counselors by profession don't have the slightest idea what we're about. We are continually trying to get them educated, but they are one of the main detriments.”

There is also wide concern that when educators and counselors do present technology, they do it in a way that's not appealing to most women. “We haven't made technology exciting. I think women are more likely to be in programs that serve the community, and we have not promoted technology as such,” says Ashok Agawal, dean of the engineering and technology school at St. Louis Community College-Florissant. “We always talk about it, but it's not just airplanes, arms, and ammunitions, it's also the small things that improve the quality of life. We haven't communicated that enough.”

Another misconception for women, Agawal says, is that the technology work is very rigid, in the sense that it doesn't have the flexibility of working hours. “The women need to know that yes, they can get out of the job market and get back in again, or that there are companies with flex-time.”

Agawal notes that at his school, 20 percent of the enrollment in technology courses is women, but they aren't fresh out of high school. These women's ages range from 25 to 45 and they take courses in everything from telecommunications to construction. “They are involved in their industry and need to upgrade their skills, so they come in midstream.” It's further proof, Agawal says, that women can and do survive in the technological working world.

Bringing more women into technology isn't going to be easy, nor will the efforts show dramatic and immediate results, Holcombe says. He emphasizes that the effort should ideally be made through the K-12 years, and definitely not start later than the 6th grade. It's most effective, he says, when the technology staff goes into the schools to demonstrate the appealing aspects of science, rather than just depending on that message being delivered by the guidance counselors. And when that representative is a woman, all the better: Her presence delivers two messages loud and clear to the girls: “I like technology,” and “I made it, so can you.”

These visits and demonstrations involve more than interesting science demos. According to Holcombe, representatives from engineering technology schools should do their homework and be ready to answer questions and offer facts and figures regarding the employment market and the working conditions. Young women of today want to know how they will be received by the male employees and perceived by other nontechnical employees. “An individual who can speak from firsthand experience is the best,” Holcombe says.

On a national level, the training programs for young students and their teachers, such as Project Lead the Way (PLW) and Expanding Your Horizons (EYH), focus mainly on 8th-grade girls. They are helping to make a difference, but much of the work is in the hands of the individual schools. Patricia Fox, associate dean for financial administration at the school of engineering and technology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), is proud that her school graduated the most females in technology for the school year, 2001-2002. That two thirds of IUPUI is technology students and one third is engineering surely contributes to their ranking. Fox does add, however, that since 1997 the combined programs have set up special scholarships for females, almost four or five times more than for other scholarships.

“We also have tutoring programs that are run by females for females already in the technology program; and we have a mentoring program for females where we match a few of the incoming female students with one upper-rank female. That helps us retain the females we already have.”

Once women are enrolled in engineering technology, “it's essential to give them encouragement and make them understand this is a discipline they can do well in,” says Lakshmi Munukutla, associate dean of Arizona State University-East's college of technology and applied sciences. “In my classes I tell the women there is nothing you can't do if you decide that [engineering technology] is your field.”

Amanda Ashline went directly into the engineering technology program at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) for two reasons: she had a scholarship and she was drawn to RIT's co-operative education program with outside employers. She was also lucky enough to have had counselors at her high school who helped her find a civil engineering technology program, a choice of field that was inspired by her father's work as a commercial electrician. “The classes at RIT are small, personal,” says Ashline. “They don't make any distinctions between gender and they don't expect less of me. It's very comfortable.”

“Engineering is a lot of theory,” Ashline says in describing the differences between the two fields. “Sure they can do all the math and the design and maybe come up with something new, but I find the engineers sometimes can't necessarily apply it to practical and real-life situations. I don't like the nit-picky details of where an equation came from; I like to get my hands into it. Give me an equation and I'll apply it.”

Ashline's priority is to apply her work to something that will make a difference in people's lives. Now in her third year, she is debating between focusing on geo-technical issues (studying ground conditions) and urban development. “Basically I want to know how the construction of a new site will affect a community around it, before, during, and after. As a woman, I know I'm more conscious of how people respond to things, unlike men who tend to be more gung ho—‘OK, let's do this and this'—who think about things after the fact. I see this in class also. It's almost unconscious.”

Ashline's sensitivity to her work and how it has the potential to effect others, is exactly what Ashok Agawal and Michael Holcombe believe is intrinsic to the female engineering technologist, and something that should be emphasized when selling its merits to potential students. As Holcombe notes, “women may bring in a little more human side to engineering. They are likely to go beyond the mechanical aspects of their work, and look at its effects on society and families.”

“Sometimes the profession gets tied up in ‘look what I can do,' ” regardless of the consequences,” says Holcombe. “Hopefully, women will come in to temper that.”


Barbara Mathias-Riegel is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
She can be reached at

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