Local universities are welcoming slightly more female engineering students this year, but some college administrators say high-profile displays of sexism at companies, like what recently happened at Google, are deterring women from choosing the major.
Approximately 28 percent of the University of Dayton’s incoming class of engineering students is female — a record increase for the university. About 22 percent of Miami University’s College of Engineering and Computing freshmen class is female, while the University of Cincinnati welcomed about 20 percent — 235 women out of 1,174 students — to their freshmen class.
“It’s a very small growth,” said Marek Dollár, dean of Miami University’s College of Engineering and Computing. “We’re trying to change this reality. We are implementing a new plan aimed at increasing the percentage of female students to 30 percent by 2020.”
Overall, about 20 percent of engineering students at Wright State University are women and only 12 percent are women engineering students at Cedarville University, the highest in each school’s history. Some college officials say enrollment isn’t increasing at higher rates because of the small pool of female candidates — an issue fueled by gender stereotypes and a failure to recruit female students in K-12.
Kirsten Simpson, a third-year industrial engineering student at the University of Dayton, said people see her painted pink nails and cannot believe she is an engineer. But Simpson is exactly the kind of engineer companies want to hire more of as firms attempt to diversify the engineers in their ranks — forcing area universities to innovate
“I mean I’m super girly. I have pink nails right now and people look at me and are like ‘You’re an engineer? What? That’s insane,’” Simpson said. “I just started talking about a project and they were taken aback, ‘Like oh my gosh, this girl knows her stuff.’”
Gender stereotyping limits pool of female engineering students
Local colleges say the pool of women interested in studying engineering isn’t growing. The representation of women among bachelor’s degree recipients has risen from 18.7 percent in 2007 to 20.9 percent in 2016 nationwide, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.
“Needless to say these numbers are not where we want them to be,” said Eddy Rojas, dean of UD’s engineering school. “They are better than ever before and they are a step in the right direction. We want to do a lot better.”
Women made up 22.3 percent of engineering students at Ohio State University in 2016, up from 20.9 percent in 2015, according to the university.
Dollár, Miami’s engineering dean, said the issue doesn’t start on college campuses, and there needs to be a societal shift in the way people talk about gender and science. Universities are getting involved by inviting high school students to campus and inviting them to workshops like Girls Who Code, he said.
At the University of Cincinnati, the college offers a Women in Engineering & Applied Science Summer Camp for high school women. The one-week camp gives high schoolers the opportunity to learn more about different departments within college and visit corporate engineering plants like General Electric, Procter & Gamble and Northrop Grumman Xetron.
So, why aren’t young women more willing to study engineering and other STEM fields in college? Research conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that women often feel marginalized during internships, summer work opportunities and even during educational activities — and that starts at a young age. During these experiences, women are often tasked with routine tasks or managerial duties while male students are given more challenging opportunities.
It turns out gender makes a big difference,” says Susan Silbey, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities, Sociology, and Anthropology at MIT, and co-author of a newly-published paper detailing the study. “It’s a cultural phenomenon.”
The study also found a variety of reasons why women are less interested in studying and working in engineering fields. Some reasons included the lack of mentorship in the field and the high demands for women of maintaining a balance between work and family life, the study found.
The issue has been brought back to the forefront when a 10-page “anti-diversity” manifesto written by a male senior engineer at Google was widely circulated. The memo criticized the company for its initiatives aimed at increasing gender and racial diversity.
Wright State President Cheryl Schrader said she was not surprised by the Google manifesto but that it may at least serve as a wake-up call for the engineering community.
Schrader, an engineer herself, is known for having boosted the number of female engineering students and faculty at her previous school, the Missouri University of Science and Technology. Under her leadership, Missouri S&T increased the number of women in faculty positions by 36 percent. The number of female students increased by 21 percent under Schrader even though Missouri S&T is historically known as a “men’s school,” faculty said.
“There’s a gap between what we’re producing and what the need is,” Schrader said. “You have to look where you might be losing people and how you might be able to retain them.”
Changing the curriculum, then workplace culture
Colleges are also changing their curriculum to drive interest by female candidates — one of which is humanitarian engineering. Humanitarian engineering is the “creation of technologies that help people,” and colleges have found that females are more interested in the program.
Ohio State University has popularized the program, with students making bicycle machines in Guatemala for impoverished people. The University of Cincinnati is looking at adding a minor in humanitarian engineering, according to UC professor Urmila Ghia, who heads up the university’s Women in Science And Engineering (WISE). And at Miami, the university found female students are also ready to engage with humanitarian engineering at higher rates than male students.
Dollár said the college’s advisory board, which focuses on gender topics, found that women are interested in socially engaged engineering and computing. The college started recruiting students last April for a cohort focused on engineering that was rooted in social consciousness and global awareness. Approximately 70 percent of student who enrolled were females.
“Whenever we have global awareness initiatives, these programs attract more female students. They want to change the world,” he said. “When we have conversations about challenges female students are likely to face, the most important thing to do is engage male students. They will be the ones helping or creating more challenges.”
In the workplace, companies want more women — and diverse minds and backgrounds — to push innovative thinking. General Electric, and its divisions like GE Aviation, announced earlier this year its goal of hiring 20,000 women in STEM roles by 2020 — reaching equal representation for all technical entry-level programs.
“While efforts have been made across the sector, through education, funded initiatives and the emergence of non-profit discussion, progress has been slow on this issue,” the company said. “Technical and engineering sectors are still male dominated and the pipeline for future talent is currently insufficient to meet future needs.”
The company released a white paper that found only 14 percent of all U.S. engineers and IT professionals are women. Among the major tech giants, women are still under-represented, making up 13 to 24 percent of the tech-related jobs, and 17 to 30 percent ascending to leadership positions.
“Unless we bring more women into technology and manufacturing, there will be a significant negative economic impact on the sector. This is a problem for business to actively address,” said GE Chief Economist Marco Annunziata.
Emerson Climate Technologies, which has a presence on UD’s campus in the form of the Helix Innovation Center, also has a goal of hiring more women and minorities, said Brandy Powell, Emerson vice president and general manager of the residential air conditioning group. Four or five years ago, Emerson launched an initiative to hire more women when officials realized there were not very many working for the company, Powel said.
“Just in general we need good engineers. The more diverse the background is the better the company will be and I know people just say that but it’s really true,” Powell said.
Emerson often works with colleges, specifically with UD, to attract prospective female students through mentoring programs and outreach, Powell said. It’s important for Emerson to recruit more women into STEM fields, Powell said, because “when you all think the same way then you’re not challenging each other to be better.”
“It is always valuable to have a diversity of thinkers on a team. Those differences lend positive support to problem solving,” said Bob Chasnov, Cedarville dean of engineering.
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