College of Engineering faces gender imbalance

By Adam Terese

Stephanie Haynes is used to being one of a few women in her engineering classes. She recalled a time when an older professor singled out her all-female group for extra help during a group project.

“He proceeded to help even though we really didn’t need it,” Haynes said. “I can definitely see how someone could find that condescending.”

Haynes is part of the 14 percent of undergraduate women in the college of Engineering, according to the Division of Management Information at the University. This disproportionate female enrollment percentage and Haynes’ experience show an important reality – engineering education faces a gender imbalance.

Haynes is a senior in computer engineering, a major with the lowest proportion of women at just seven percent. She was one of two female students in a computer systems class last fall.

Low female enrollment in Engineering is not a new issue, said Susan Larson, associate professor in Engineering and assistant dean. Larson said women’s enrollment in Engineering at the University has always been low, which is a problem.

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“Engineering can’t serve society unless it reflects society,” Larson said. “We need talented, bright people, and if half our population we can’t reach, we’re suffering as a field.”

This problem is not exclusive to the University. The Engineering Workforce Commission found that in 2002, only 18.5 percent of all undergraduates at more than 500 different institutions were women. Keith Hjelmstad, associate dean of Academic Programs in the college of Engineering, said with exceptions, low female enrollment in Engineering can be found at institutions across the United States. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of those exceptions. Women currently make up 36 percent of all undergraduates there, 22 percent more than at the University, according to the Office of the Registrar at MIT.

While there are many reasons women don’t appear to be drawn to engineering, none relate to ability, Larson said.

Hjelmstad said the low female enrollment has little to do with the women themselves and is a result of the cultural environment.

“(Things that affect enrollment) are not necessarily related to the subjects themselves, and that part I think we can affect,” Hjelmstad said. “We can’t actually change the subjects, but we can change the climate.”

Traditional structures within the University are one of the main climate issues. Hjelmstad said these structures often do not serve a diversification function. They also are not easy to change – it involves changing traditional approaches to professor-student interaction.

“It’s probably the easiest and the hardest (thing to change),” Hjelmstad said. “It’s easiest because it requires nothing. It’s hardest because it’s asking people to change.”

Approaches in the classroom may even be problematic before college. Larson said many believe a contributing factor actually begins in earlier schooling. She noted that in high schools, there are already fewer women in physics, math and programming classes.

People are also introduced to a specific “image of the engineer” that is represented in the media, Larson said. Not only do engineers rarely appear in the media, but when they do, they are often portrayed as nerds with weak social skills, she added.

“The stereotype of the engineer is one that is not very interesting to women,” Larson said. “It’s not a career they see as helpful to society.”

“That’s not the kind of engineer we need. We need engineers with good social skills, that work well in teams and are creative, and those are skills women excel at,” she added.

Larson serves as the director of Women in Engineering on campus, an organization designed for female engineers. The group holds a camp for middle school girls interested in math and science. While the camp is meant to encourage the girls, Larson said an experiment during the camp last summer shows the prevalence of the nerdy engineer stereotype.

The young girls were asked to draw an engineer at the beginning and at the end of camp. Larson said the first drawing resembled a “stereotypical, nerdy engineer.” At the end, the girls’ pictures resembled their female undergraduate leaders and visiting female engineers from companies.

“It’s a powerful symbol of what the camp can do,” Larson said.

Organizations such as Women in Engineering are working to change the stereotypical image of the engineer while creating a comfortable environment for women engineers on campus. Larson said when students first come to the University they see themselves as engineering students, not female engineers. She said a female’s perception of engineering often changes over time as she realizes the idea of a female engineer differs from the norm.

Haynes holds a position with another women’s group, the Society of Women Engineers, which offers female engineers leadership development and career help. Haynes thanks the organization for help in finding an internship with IBM last summer that lead to a full-time job offer – she got an interview because of contacts she made through the group.

Despite low female enrollment in most engineering departments, some show hope of a slight, narrowing gender gap. Hjelmstad said traditionally, chemical engineering, industrial engineering and general engineering have higher female enrollment. For fall 2005, industrial engineering had the highest proportion of women at 35 percent. Hjelmstad said these enrollment differences are hard to explain.

“I think there is a momentum factor,” Hjelmstad said. “Once you get your proportions up, it’s easier to keep them up and if you look around and see other people like you, then your likelihood of feeling like you’ve come to the right places is higher.”

In departments where the gap is clear, Hjelmstad said the goal is simply to increase enrollment, “to do better.” The University has strategies aimed to increase female recruitment for Engineering, such as targeting out-of-state students, Hjelmstad said. The enrollment problem may have to do with the pool of applicants and focusing on out-of-state students creates a larger pool. Higher out of state tuition, however, may be discouraging to those students, he added.

There are also programs focused on student retention, keeping students in the college. Women in Engineering offers an optional orientation for incoming female engineering students aimed at retention. Despite its importance, Larson said retention is fairly equal across gender for most departments in Engineering.

As for specific things that need to change, Larson said it’s difficult to know.

“The more you look at the problem, the more there is to be done,” Larson said. “What we can try to do is try to attract more women to the U of I and to make this a welcoming, encouraging, supportive environment.”

Even the business world is watching the issue. Larson said one corporate representative she spoke to said he’d rather hire a female engineer for her teamwork and communication skills, and he “bemoaned” the fact that there weren’t enough. As the career world evolves, companies are increasingly looking for diversified engineers with heightened social skills, Hjelmstad said.

The traditional definition of an engineer as a problem solver is expanding to include a broader set of skills and talents, Hjelmstad said. He said because everyone has different talents, this change in the definition is yet another reason more diversity in engineering undergraduates is necessary.

“The definition of engineering has changed. Engineering as it was 30 to 50 years ago, you’d have a hard time arguing that we need to change anything,” Hjelmstad said. “Engineering isn’t that anymore.”