Women graduating in the field of engineering are few and far between, particularly in Utah.
Nationally, about <a href=”http://www.uvu.edu/wep/pdf/UWEP%20IPEDS%202008%20Report.pdf”>18 percent of engineering graduates are women</a> while in Utah it is about 12 percent. At Utah State University, women account for about 9 percent of engineering graduates, and the <a href=”http://usu.edu/aaa/pdf/graduation_report/GRADRP2011.pdf”>college of engineering is taking note</a>.
Professor Chris Hailey, Associate Dean of USU’s College of Engineering, says, “Whenever numbers are so disproportionate, as is the case in our college in regards to women, questions of ‘Do I belong here?’ naturally arise. The problem lies within the field of engineering, and we have to work to change it.”
A minority herself as a female professor in the college, Hailey has been teaching a one credit class for freshman the past few years called Women in Engineering. The class focuses on understanding what it is like to be a female student in engineering where they are a super-minority. The idea is to give students a better understanding of what engineers actually do and what career possibilities there are with the degree.
“Engineering is a misunderstood profession,” Hailey says. “People think it is the ‘Dilbert’ model – a white guy in glasses doing geeky things. Many women don’t think of engineering as a ‘helping’ profession, but it is. We just don’t advertise that well enough.”
Many women enter traditional fields that are seen as ‘helping’ professions such as nursing, teaching and social work. In Utah, women particularly don’t enter non-traditional fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The national average for women graduating in STEM is about 30 percent, and Utah is at 20 percent.
Hailey said many women see themselves as ‘agents of change’ and that is why they are drawn to helping professions – jobs that educate and heal people. And while engineering is a step removed from, say, a doctor holding a baby as it is born, an engineer can design the equipment that keeps a premature infant alive.
“I don’t want to generalize saying all women want to ‘help’ because that suggests a serving role rather than a managing role,” Hailey clarifies. “But I do think many women see themselves as agents of change, and this is a profession that can allow them to do that.”
Contributing to the problem is a lack of understanding about the profession by high school counselors, Hailey says. They often only recommend engineering to girls if they are good in math instead of looking at creativity and humanitarian aspects of the job.
Another subject discussed in the class is work-life balance since many incoming female freshmen are already thinking about making a career work while having a family.
“This is one thing that is pretty unique with freshman females,” Hailey says. “And then there’s Dilbert again, and we don’t even know if Dilbert has kids. Women are looking for role models that show them it works, it is possible.”
Students aren’t understanding the benefits like higher pay and that engineering is a great pre-grad school degree. Often, since women are minority in the field, they do not struggle finding a job.
“When you are eight out of 100, don’t forget you have a lot of control over working part-time. There are so many career paths, and it is not my job to pick one for them, but rather to show them that there are multiple choices, things they may not have considered,” Hailey explains.
One thing that seems to be working nationally is the organization <a href=”http://societyofwomenengineers.swe.org/”>Society of Women Engineers</a>. USU has a section with over 50 students. The organization puts on activities for current engineering students as well as promotes the field of engineering to potential students.
“We believe a way to retain students is to engage them in an out-of-class experience,” says Hailey. “This allows women to network and discuss issues in field, adding incentive for them to stay in the major because they are not alone.”
Having co-students like yourself is an important factor because you can have confidence as a group. And confidence is something USU female engineer students are struggling with, Hailey says.
An example Hailey uses is that a female freshman gets a C on a test, and a male freshman gets a C. The male turns to his 92 male peers and sees the ones who are doing well. But the female sees few other female students, and says, ‘I got a C on this test, and I can’t do it, I don’t belong.’
Andrea Olson, a 2011 USU biological engineering graduate, says the issue of lack of confidence in female students was something she noticed. She said part of the problem is that the professors weren’t aware that women felt their grades reflected on their identity, affecting their self-esteem.
“Women are more susceptible in engineering to dropping out I think,” Olson says. “The male students didn’t seem to get as discouraged if they didn’t do well but saw it as a challenge. But females saw themselves as not smart enough, even a failure. Women struggle with not getting it the first time.”
Olson’s junior year was very difficult, and she saw several female classmates drop out at that time.
“I went into the major with the thought I would have to master all of the material, but I learned it was about exposure and learning, not mastery. I realized I will forget stuff, but that I can relearn it,” Olson says.
Confidence and an understanding of what engineers do was something Olson got before entering college. She grew up in Soda Springs, Idaho, a town that had a lot of engineers including her father who was a chemical engineer.
“I liked math and science classes, and my dad always encouraged me,” says Olson. “A teacher I had in high school was a retired chemical engineer and I just always had a positive environment for it, and heard about high job satisfaction.”
While more female students graduate from biological engineering than other fields of engineering, Olson says she was still a super-minority at about 30 percent. She saw her female fellow students learn the value of team work.
“Female students should stick together. Have your own study groups,” Olson believes. “School isn’t a competition, and engineering is especially not. Work as a team.”
But making teams means keeping female students. The first step to getting more women engineers is retaining current students, Hailey says. To do that, USU has just hired a retention specialist who will interview students who want to change majors to make sure they really want to leave for good reason.
Hailey says, “We hope students will see her as a resource if they’re having trouble so they can think about it before walking away. We will find out why students leave because that is a starting point, keeping students already here. We can’t recruit more until we figure out what the stumbling blocks are here and now.”