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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo NOVEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 3
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COMPETING FORCES - Medicine, law and business are all better than engineering at attracting women to their ranks. What can we learn from them?  By Alvin P. Sanoff - Illustration by Michael Gibbs

By Alvin P. Sanoff

It’s no secret that most young women aren’t drawn to engineering. They flock to medical and law schools. Even M.B.A. programs, which have had problems attracting women, do better than schools of engineering. Most college-bound women don’t even consider engineering an option.

The numbers tell the story. About half the students in medical school and just under half in law school are women. Female enrollment in M.B.A. programs is estimated to be slightly above 30 percent, while at the undergraduate level, women account for slightly more than half of business majors. By contrast, women earn only 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees and a slightly higher percentage of master’s degrees. (Since there are many more degrees awarded in engineering than in medicine or law, the total number of degrees women receive in engineering exceeds that of the other two professions.)

Admittedly, it’s impossible to draw an exact parallel between engineering and the other fields. For example, an undergraduate diploma is not the first professional degree in law and medicine, so students can major in art history and still be viable candidates for admission if they have a strong academic record and solid scores on the required standardized tests. But in engineering, the undergraduate diploma is the first professional degree. Moreover, the course requirements for entry are substantial. So, unlike potential lawyers and doctors, most would-be engineers must decide on their major no later than their freshman year.

Nonetheless, the experiences of educators in other fields offer lessons that engineering educators can draw from as they strive to increase the number of women in the profession. If engineering remains alien to most women, the United States may be unable to produce the number of engineers needed for the nation to retain its technological edge.

A study of admissions data shows that law and medical schools have had the easiest time attracting women. The slow flow of women into both turned into a veritable torrent in the 1970s. Herma Hill Kay, who holds a named chair at Boalt Hall—the law school of the University of California, Berkeley—and is the school’s former dean, says that women became interested in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and that led many to pursue a legal career. Other legal educators say that Watergate also served as a catalyst.

In 1963, just 3 percent of those enrolled in American Bar Association-accredited law schools were women. Twenty years later, that figure had soared to 38 percent. During the 1970s, the number of women in law schools grew more than six-fold, from just under 6,700 to almost 41,000. Today, there are more than 67,000 women enrolled in ABA-accredited schools.

In medicine, the transformation was more gradual but no less dramatic. In 1970, women accounted for under 10 percent of enrollees. Ten years later, that number had risen to 27 percent, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. The numbers have continued to increase year after year, and now women have achieved virtual parity with men. At many schools, they make up a substantial majority of the student body. “Medicine began to attract women who in an earlier time would have become nurses,” observes sociologist Carroll Seron of the University of California, Irvine. Adds Diana Magrane, an associate vice president of the Association of American Medical Colleges and director of its Women in Medicine programs: “Women saw entry into medicine as an opportunity to make a social contribution with a high probability that they would succeed in medical school and in life.”

Observers say that the rise of feminism and the 1972 passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation that banned sex discrimination in admissions, energized women who felt that both medicine and law were now open to them. Law and medical schools did not have to actively recruit women; they simply had to open their doors wide and not stand in the way.

Business Not Booming

Engineering and M.B.A. programs did not reap comparable benefits from the transformations in society. In part, say observers, women did not view the fields as offering the same opportunities as law and medicine to bring about social change, a priority for many young women of the baby boomer generation.

M.B.A. programs have also had to grapple with life cycle issues that discourage many women from pursuing the degree. Typically, there is a break of three to six years between the time potential M.B.A.s graduate from college and enter business school. By then, some women are starting a family and decide that enrolling in an M.B.A. program is too disruptive. “The top business schools target students who are between 25 and 28 years old, and at that particular time many women are focused on having their children,” says Sabrina White, admissions director of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park. “Many full-time programs are not designed so that women can take a year off to have a child. But if men choose to have a child, their studies are rarely interrupted.” Engineering is also affected by life cycle issues in the sense that students must decide at a young age whether to pursue a career in the field. If youngsters do not take the proper science and math courses in high school, it can be an uphill battle for them to major in engineering.

Like schools of engineering, business schools are working hard to attract women. One of the things they have learned is that women believe that business and engineering offer less opportunity than medicine and law. Forty-one percent of women considering applying to an M.B.A. program saw a glass ceiling in both business and engineering as “very real,” says Daphne Atkinson, vice president for industry relations at the Graduate Management Admission Council, which did the survey and sponsors the GMAT, the standardized test for M.B.A. applicants. A glass ceiling is less of an issue in law and medicine, where the comparable figures are 25 and 17 percent, respectively. The fact that most engineering jobs are in the corporate sector could help explain why women view business and engineering in a similar light. Both are widely regarded as fields in which often hostile, male-dominated cultures are the norm. “Companies that have shown themselves to be family-friendly are more likely to attract women,” says Wendy Huber, assistant director of admissions at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business.

Julie Strong, associate director of M.B.A. admissions at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, says that the differences in the priorities of men and women are evident in how they go about choosing M.B.A. programs. While men put the top priority on prestige and rankings, women are more likely to care about a sense of community at the school, the quality of teaching and the opportunity to develop relationships with the faculty. By focusing more on women’s priorities in its recruiting, Sloan has increased the proportion of women in its classes from 25 to 30 percent. Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business has developed a brochure designed specifically for women that emphasizes the school’s sense of community and the close relationships that exist between students and faculty. The brochure also features several of the school’s female graduates talking about their careers and their experiences in the M.B.A. program.

Educators say that women who are considering applying to a school look to see whether there are role models among alumni, administrators and faculty members. John Fernandes, president of AACSB International, the major accrediting body for business schools, says that “there is nothing better for a prospective applicant than to look across the table and see someone who looks like you. If a school wants more women, then it needs a good share of women in admission and counseling positions.” Having women on the faculty is even more important, many educators say.

Nationally, law schools have a higher proportion of women on their faculties than medicine, business or engineering. Twenty-five percent of full professors, 47 percent of associate professors and 50 percent of assistant professors in the 2002-03 academic year were women, according to the Association of American Law Schools. At medical schools in 2003, 11 percent of full professors, 19 percent of associate professors and 50 percent of assistant professors were women, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. In business schools in the 2003-04 academic year, 14 percent of full professors, 25 percent of associate professors and 34 percent of assistant professors were women, reports AACSB International.

Engineering schools lag far behind. ASEE data show that just 6 percent of full professors, 12 percent of associate professors and 18 percent of assistant professors are women. These numbers reflect the fact that relatively few women pursue engineering careers. But because women look to faculty members as role models, the low numbers may do more than reflect reality. In all likelihood, they also reinforce the lack of interest women show in engineering.

When the Olin College of Engineering was born several years ago, its founders were mindful of the importance of having women on its faculty in order to attract a high proportion of female students. Duncan Murdoch, vice president for external relations and dean of admission at Olin, says that engineering schools need to do more than simply say they are a good place for women—they need to prove it, and female faculty members offer compelling proof. Today, women make up about 40 percent of the Olin faculty. And while the college has fallen short of its goal of having a student body that is evenly divided between men and women, more than 40 percent of its students are female, one of the highest proportions among U.S. engineering schools.

An Image Problem

Educators and administrators in medicine, law and business have learned that a profession’s image can also make a significant difference. Lawyers and doctors are often portrayed favorably in the mass media, for example in TV series such as “Perry Mason,” “ER” and the various permutations of “Law and Order.” By contrast, business executives are frequently portrayed negatively on television and in such movies as “Wall Street” and “Boiler Room,” where rapacious characters wheel and deal without regard to the law, ethics or simple decency. “Nobility is associated with being a doctor or lawyer,” says Maryland’s Sabrina White. “But few TV shows are written about M.B.A.s using their powers for good.” The recent convictions of high-profile business executives for an assortment of transgressions reinforce the image that those in business care only about money. “The M.B.A. has not had a reputation as a degree that has a positive impact on the community,” White says.

Educators say that, in contrast to the other fields, engineering is relatively invisible in the mass media. It isn’t the subject of TV shows or movies, positive or negative, and engineers rarely make headlines. If they do, the fact that they are engineers is rarely the main focus of the story. A recent Gallup Poll may offer one indication of engineering’s low profile. When a national random sample of adults was asked “what kind of career or work would you recommend” to a young woman, medicine came in first. Engineering trailed far behind.

To the extent that engineers are depicted on television and in movies, say educators, it is often as stereotypical nerds whose social skills are wanting. The profession is seen as populated by “very shrink-wrapped people,” says Sherra Kerns, vice president for innovation and research at Olin College.

In part as a result of the profession’s relative invisibility, college-bound women can graduate from high school with little or no idea of what engineers do. “From the day you are a little girl, you know what doctors do,” but the same is not true of either lab scientists or engineers, observes Paula Tracy, professor of biochemistry and medicine at the University of Vermont, whose father was an engineer.

Educators say that young women are socialized to believe that math and physics are the province of males, and that discourages them from pursuing engineering. “We have to show adolescent girls that engineering, math and science are cool things that create opportunities for them,” Diane Magrane says. Comments such as those from Harvard University President Lawrence Summers suggesting that innate differences between men and women might help explain why fewer females succeed in science and math reflect a mindset that has discouraged women from pursuing scientific careers, medicine excepted.

Medicine, unlike engineering, is regarded as a field that places a high priority on the betterment of humankind, a characteristic that educators say is very important to young women. Domenico Grasso, founding dean of Smith College’s engineering program and current dean of engineering and mathematical sciences at the University of Vermont, says that “women see law and medicine as offering an opportunity to make a difference in society. They don’t see that opportunity in engineering. We have treated engineering as an end in itself, not as a vehicle to help make society better.”

It’s no coincidence that women in engineering are more likely to pursue degrees in biomedical and environmental engineering, which are clearly linked to the betterment of society. According to ASEE, 46 percent of undergraduate degrees in biomedical engineering and 41 percent in environmental engineering are awarded to women, an extraordinarily high proportion considering the number of women studying engineering.

Research has also shown that women are “a high-touch population” that values human interaction, says Atkinson of the Graduate Management Admission Council. Yet engineering is not seen as offering that, despite the fact that working in teams and collaborative learning now play an important role in engineering programs and have been incorporated into ABET’s assessment criteria. Educators in other fields say that engineering has simply not gotten the message across that it places a high priority on teamwork and interpersonal skills. “Engineering appeals more to individuals who want to work as individuals,” says AACSB’s Fernandes. He says that if that is no longer the case, then “schools need to make it clear to women that engineering can be as fulfilling as business from the standpoint of social and group interaction.”

Sociologist Seron, who is engaged in a study of engineering students at four institutions, views “engineering as a very conservative profession. There is a strong sense of what students need to do and an attitude of ‘get with the agenda or leave.’” Olin’s Kerns says that engineering educators “are very attached to the concept that engineering education is painful, dry and difficult.” She recalls that earlier in her career, when students told her that they liked her course, a colleague said to her, “ ‘You must not be teaching it right.’ ”

Kerns says that if engineering is to attract more women, the field needs to redefine itself as a profession that offers “hard fun.” Moreover, she says, to the extent that engineering curricula are inflexible and require students to “sacrifice something that they feel passionate about, such as dance or the arts, to devote the time and effort necessary to get a degree, many women will say to themselves, ‘Thank you, but I will provide my talent to the planet in some other way.’ ”

For engineering educators, the future may prove even more challenging than the present. Atkinson says that the generation of young people born between the early 1980s and 2000, who have been dubbed “millennials” by demographers, want their jobs to have “socially redeeming value.” Members of this generation are “idealistic and believe that they will fix what the baby boomers and the generation that followed them—generation X—have messed up,” she adds. If Atkinson is correct, then unless there is a major transformation both within engineering education and in the way engineering presents itself to the world, the profession’s inability to attract women could deepen. Engineering educators need to bear in mind, Atkinson says, that “only if you first talk to women about the things that they care about will you then be able to talk to them about what you care about. Remember, it is not about you. It is about them.”

Al Sanoff is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.

 

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