Nebraska Engineering Fall, 2005
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Where are the rest View women engineers' profiles:
Women Group photo

Professor Suzanne Rohde struggles to understand why.

Why are record numbers of intelligent women going to law school and medical school while female enrollment in engineering programs has barely budged?

"What are we doing wrong?" Rohde asked.

It's a seemingly simple question without any easy answers. Even identifying the cause of the shortage is difficult, though three major themes have emerged: lack of awareness, recruitment tactics and sociological factors.

The College of Engineering's approach to recruiting females and minorities has changed dramatically since alumna Angela Pannier was looking at colleges in 1997.

"There wasn't much outreach back then," said Pannier, BSE '01, '02.

Since then, the college has made recruitment and outreach a priority. In 1998, the college introduced Women Interested in Engineering Day, which brings girls in grades 10-12 to campus to learn about engineering and meet female students and faculty. This year's event drew 63 participants, a new record.

The college hosts a litany of other events for middle- and high-school students: Discover Engineering Days, the Society of Women Engineers' Junior Girl Scout Program and TEAMS competitions, to name a few.

As a result, undergraduate enrollment has increased from 1,920 a decade ago to 2,449 this fall, a 28 percent increase.

Pie Chart

However, female students still comprise only 12 percent of the college's student body.

Female enrollment climbed from 224 in 1996 to 307 in 2002–and then dropped each year until 2006.

That might not be alarming if the rates were comparable to other professional fields. The number of females enrolling in law schools has climbed steadily since the 1970s, and the American Bar Association projects that females will comprise 40 percent of the legal profession by 2010.

The shortage of female engineering students isn't a problem unique to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Numerous professional organizations offer grants, scholarships and fellowships to females with hopes of bringing more into the profession. Between 1993 and 2003, the National Science Foundation awarded 211 grants through its Diversity in Science and Education program.

Rohde said female faculty are getting frustrated. They lead workshops at Women Interested in Engineering Day. They go out of their way to talk to high school girls who visit campus. Still, Rohde said, there haven't been any dramatic changes.

"It kind of hurts that so much time and money has been spent and nothing has really changed," she said.

Does Perception Match Reality?
As a profession, engineering may suffer from a perception problem. To put it bluntly, Rohde said, the public doesn't understand what engineers do. She recalls explaining to an eighth-grade girl what an engineer does for a living. The girl was unimpressed, Rohde said.

"Her response was, ‘So you make stuff?' How do you reach a student that sees the profession as just making stuff?"

Engineering Professor Jennifer Brand said engineering is usually marketed as "making computer games and building racecars." What people don't understand, she said, is that engineering is a unique way of thinking that can be as creative and fulfilling as playing a musical instrument.

Brand said too often, engineers tell people about the difficult aspects of their jobs rather than touting the rewards.

Another problem, Brand said, is that engineering is one of the few professions that force someone to decide at age 18 if it's right for her. Students who choose law or medicine don't make that decision until they're 22 or older, she said.

Socialization may be one reason why it's difficult for colleges to recruit females–and get them to stay.

Brand said prospective students, especially females, think they have to be the next Einstein to succeed.

"We'll see equality when (female) C-students want to be engineers," she said. "Women feel if they cannot be the best, they cannot do it."

Rohde agreed. She said her male students' grades are distributed across the Bell curve while her female students tend to have the highest grades or the lowest.

"Women interpret their first C as a failure and migrate. The guys get a C in chemistry and they blame it on the professor being a jerk." Fear of rejection also looms in some women's minds. Brand said she is alarmed by how many teenagers assume they'll be treated differently in school and at work just because they're female.

"I heard a high school girl the other day say, ‘I don't want to go into engineering because I don't want to put up with that crap.' That broke my heart. I hope we're not talking about discrimination so much that we're scaring away people," she said.

When 21-year-old Alexis Jensen was choosing a college major, she knew she was entering a male-dominated field. "I took that as a personal challenge," said Jensen, an industrial and management systems engineering major.

She noticed the gender imbalance in her first engineering class, in which there were four females and 46 males. "Now I don't think anything of it," she said. "They're my friends and peers. The guys treat you with respect and don't talk down to you."

Pannier, the UNL alumna who studied biomedical engineering, said she rarely felt like she was in the minority because the gender ratio in her discipline was more equal.

"I have no negative thoughts of being a female engineer at Nebraska," she said. "If anything, people bent over backward to make us feel comfortable."

Pannier said part of her comfort level was the result of going out of her way to find a community within the college.

Kaylea Dunn, assistant director of recruitment and outreach, said she's noticed that female students tend to be highly involved in student organizations.

"It may sound stereotypical, but girls tend to be more social and understand they need to reach out and make connections with other people," she said.

Jensen also found some of her closest friends in the Society of Women Engineers and the Engineering Learning Community, which allows 70 freshman engineers to live together in Abel Hall. She credits her learning community mentor, Niki Waegli, for teaching her how to study and join clubs.

How Should We Recruit Women?

Studying why a 17-year-old girl might choose engineering may provide clues to reaching her peers.

An ongoing National Science Foundation study is looking at the University of Oklahoma Department of Industrial Engineering's success in recruiting and retaining female faculty and students. The study compares OU to three other universities: UNL, which has similar demographics; the University of Pittsburg, an urban campus; and Arizona State University, another metropolitan school.

The study has shown that the best predictors of whether a prospective student chooses engineering are his or her friends and relatives, the school's reputation and scholarship offers. Camps, workshops and job shadowing are less effective. (See essays by Karen Coen-Brown and her daughter, Whitney Brown, on pages 22 and 23.)

Jensen, a senior from Aurora, Colo., said her high school chemistry teacher encouraged her. "I didn't have a lot of confidence because it was the hardest class I'd ever taken," Jensen said. "She told me I could go anywhere and do anything I wanted and gave me the confidence to pursue my goal and not let anybody talk me out of it." Jensen said her parents, especially her father, were thrilled when she chose engineering. Her friends weren't as supportive. "I think they wondered if I'd be able to handle it," she said.

Pannier, now a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University, also said she wouldn't have considered engineering if her high school physics teacher hadn't steered her in that direction. Engineering schools may have more success in recruiting females if administrators pay attention to not just who, but what, draws females to the profession. Pannier said men are told to try engineering because they like machinery or are good at taking things apart and putting them back together. That message doesn't resonate with most women, she said. After researching several disciplines, Pannier knew she was suited for biological systems engineering because she wanted to solve medical problems.

At UNL, the greatest concentration of females is found in disciplines with artistic or healing components. As of September, the majors with the highest numbers of female students were architectural engineering, 48; biological systems engineering, 48; and chemical engineering, 36.

Rohde has noticed that her female students are drawn to service learning projects and the "helping" side of engineering. "That's not to say that the guys don't want to help, but women tend to get more excited," she said. "That's what keeps women here."

When Do We Lose Them?
The good news for young women is that they have more career opportunities than ever. However, that also means women with the intellectual ability to be successful engineers have other options to consider.

Dunn, the college's assistant director of recruitment and outreach, said one of her greatest challenges is getting women to choose engineering over other interests.

"In high school, people excel at a lot of things," she said. "Even if they're good at math and science, they might love music performance."

She hopes events like Women in Interested in Engineering Day make girls aware that engineering is a viable option and motivates them to take advanced math and science courses. WIIE also gets young women on the college's radar before they even apply to UNL.

Rohde said she wonders if high school is challenging enough for the brightest students. "We miss a lot of young women because we're not keeping them energized in high school," she said, recalling her own high school experience. Rohde said she wasn't a top student, but she graduated early to attend Iowa State University because she wanted a challenge.

Citing studies that prove until high school, males and females have near-equal performance in math and science, Pannier wonders if teenage girls feel social pressure to downplay their intelligence.

"It's easier to play stupid and get the boys than to keep your grades up ... They need more role models to see they can be a woman and an engineer," she said.

When she's a college professor someday, that's what she plans to do.

Are We Asking the Right Questions?
Brand said she questions how important it is to track the number of women in the field.

"I see the low numbers of women in engineering as canaries in the mineshaft," she said. "It is not the dying canaries that we should focus on; it is what these deaths indicate."

Brand believes the college should be asking different questions: Do we have intellectual diversity in terms of creativity, interests and experiences? Do our students have intellectual curiosity?

The best way to bring women into the profession is to create a better engineering program for all students, she said. Possible changes could include a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and discrimination; having the best instructors teach the introductory classes and reward them for doing so; changing the curriculum to include more individual lab experiments; and fostering a culture that encourages curiosity and originality.

Brand said these changes would be expensive and potentially difficult, but the payoff could be great.

"If we improve the mineshaft, we will save more than the canary."

© 2006 University of Nebraska-Lincoln, College of Engineering