The Washington Post

Why do women steer clear of engineering?

Here is a guest post by Kristin R. Tichenor, senior vice president for enrollment and institutional strategy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Women continue to resist engineering fields, even though they now match men in academic preparation. ((Courtesy Worcester Polytechnic Institute)

The issue concerns me as the lead enrollment official at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), a science and engineering institution, and as the parent of two daughters who I hope will consider engineering as a career choice. Despite discouraging national trends, our institution has seen steady growth in female enrollments over the last decade, from 610 undergraduate women in 2001 to 1,134 in 2011. The gains here are especially pronounced over the last five years: The number of female engineering majors has increased by 73 percent. To what do we attribute the success, and how can it be replicated to encourage more women to pursue studies in engineering?

Engineering Early and Often

Young girls have limited exposure to engineering, but when given the opportunity, they respond favorably. The National Girls Collaborative Project, an NSF-supported initiative, lists nearly 2,400 programs aimed at involving girls of all ages in engineering-intensive activities. We want girls to see first-hand that engineers get to do cool and interesting things and, even more importantly, that there is no reason to be intimidated. WPI’s Camp Reach for seventh-grade girls was designed to give girls the confidence to pursue engineering. According to a recent longitudinal study, Camp Reach alumnae were far more likely to pursue engineering majors in college than those in a control group. Participants cited Camp Reach as providing a sense of empowerment and self-esteem. As high school students, they showed high self-rating of computer skills, math abilities and intellectual self-confidence, compared with national averages for women.

Engineering for the Greater Good

Girls want to know that their chosen career will benefit others. Intel recently conducted a survey in which teens were told to read a series of statements about engineering and then asked if the statement made them more or less likely to consider a career in engineering. One of the top “more likely” picks for teen girls was a statement about fixing major social problems, such as delivering clean water to communities in Africa.

Many colleges and universities are offering engineering students the opportunity to do this type of transformational work. At WPI, one student team just spent a term in Namibia helping villagers improve water quality through improved sanitation. Harvey Mudd College offers students the chance to make an impact through their Clinic Program, and at Olin College, undergraduates tackle the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges, such as producing alternative energy.

Girl Power

Another oft-cited barrier for girls is the lack of female engineering role models. Add to that a lack of encouragement from adults: An NSF-supported study of high school career counselors found that more than one-third of the counselors “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that boys were generally more encouraged to pursue engineering than girls. More than half of the counselors also cited a lack of female role models, girls being unaware of what engineers do, a masculine image associated with engineering and an aversion to working in a male-dominated environment.

The reality is that female engineering majors continue to be in the minority. On average, only 28 percent of the first-year science and engineering majors at schools in the Association of Independent Technological Universities in 2010 were women. At WPI, women now comprise 31 percent of the undergraduate population. Interestingly, women occupy a disproportionate number of leadership roles here. Of the 158 student clubs and organizations, 38 percent have female presidents; 39 percent have female vice presidents. Within the Student Government Association, 40 percent of the senators are female. These figures challenge perceptions of female success in a male-dominated environment. The goal on all campuses must be to demonstrate a commitment to the achievement of women, regardless of head count.

There are no quick and easy fixes at play. We have the proof that young women can be successful engineers. We must convince them of that fact. It will take consistent and targeted exposure to the field, to the success stories, and to the promise that, as engineers, they will be well positioned to change the world for the better.


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