women to engineering school is tough, but some schools have found a formula
that seems to work.
The female engineering
professor could hardly believe her ears. During a recent departmental
faculty meeting, the professor (who wishes to remain anonymous)
was astounded to hear one of the higher-ups proudly explaining the
university's newest initiative to attract more female engineering
students: Planting flowers and shrubs outside to make the entrance
more visually pleasing.
"Nobody moved. You could see everyone was thinking the same thing,"
says the professor. "I don't think that planting tulips in a pretty
little row outside the engineering building is really going to translate
into more women engineers."
On some level, you
can't blame the guy for trying. It's no secret there is a paucity of women
in the field of engineering. In fact, the recent report of the congressional
Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering,
and Technology Development starkly reminded engineering educators that
growth has not only been dismal, but stagnant.
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 businessfields 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."
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."
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
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.
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."
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. "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."
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 Oklahoma51
percent of whom are womencan 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.
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 luckluck 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
Some universities are creating courses that will hook students into engineering
faster by giving them a taste of how dynamic such a career can bea
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,"
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
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."
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
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.
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."
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."
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.
Mannix is a freelance writer living in suburban Washington, D.C.