Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Can Colleges Improve Gender Balance in Engineering?

I work at a college where male undergraduates are in the majority because they are in the majority of one of the college's biggest majors, engineering. I have participated in discussions about how to improve the gender balance, and it bothers me that the best suggestion is to add more female-dominated majors, like education and allied health. In my mind, this "solution" just buries an important social problem for the sake of improving a college-wide statistic. As I recently blogged, systemic biases, stereotypes, entrenched cultural expectations, as well as outright discrimination in such matters as compensation and the structuring of job requirements operate to segregate men and women into highly polarized fields of study. Though colleges are not necessarily to blame for these forces, it is wrong, I think, to affirm that polarity by inviting it as a solution to the problem of overall gender imbalance. But at the same time, I recognize that it is difficult for colleges to address the problem of gender disparities within majors. By the time students reach college, many already have some sense of what they want to study, and if they're not already interested in STEM subjects, college is not usually the place where that happens.

So I read with interest this article about efforts Notre Dame is making to improve the gender balance among its engineering undergraduates. Specifically, it has implemented a dual-degree program with a nearby St. Mary's, a private women's college. St. Mary's students majoring in math or science may also take pre-engineering classes at Notre Dame. After graduating from St. Mary's in whatever they majored at there, they may enroll at Notre Dame for a fifth year, and complete a second degree in engineering in that time. Seven students have made that choice. These women improved the gender balance in Notre Dame's engineering college not just by being there, but by making it easier to recruit female first-year students who see value in a more gender-integrated program. This has contributed to Notre Dame's increase in the percentage of female first-year students in engineering -- from 22 to 30% over the last eight years. Other efforts are also credited. For instance, Notre Dame carefully assigns first-year female engineering students to pre-selected dorms where they live in proximity with each other and upperclass mentors.

Even colleges that don't have an affiliated all-women's college in the picture can make similar changes that might help improve gender balance in engineering. First, targeting women for inclusion sends the right message that the university believes they can become engineers if they want to. Second, the careful dorm assignments help create a community of support. Third, and most importantly, recognizing that it might take longer for women to warm up to the idea of becoming engineers compensates for the fact that women in engineering have fewer role models, might have received less support for that choice in their earlier education, and might need some time to deprogram from the cultural messages like "math is hard" Barbie. The extra year/joint degree options could make it easier for any student to try out engineering and see if it's a fit. Tuition assistance and scholarships for that extra fifth year could make the dual degree in engineering even more appealing. These options should be directed at undecided students, as well as students who have already chosen some other major, like, say the female-dominated programs in allied health. Imagine someone pitching to them the value of a second degree in, say, biomedical engineering, and then offering the academic, social, and financial support to make that happen.

There is one thing, though, that colleges should not copy from Notre Dame. Two university officials quoted in the article referred to female engineering students as "girls." No one referred to their counterparts as "boys," and it would have stood out if they had. I agree that to overcome cultural biases and stereotypes, colleges and universities need to pay special attention to female students in STEM fields. But that is not a license to infantilize those students or think of them as less capable or mature than their male counterparts. Hopefully those quotes are an isolated occurrence. Otherwise, the message it sends will undercut the positive steps toward dismantling the gender imbalance in engineering.