The Women in Engineering (WE) Program at Texas A&M University was established in 2015 to increase the participation of women within the engineering profession. Our mission is to provide academic, professional, and personal growth opportunities for female students to succeed in an engineering course of study and beyond. Through innovative programming and partnerships, WE works to increase the number of women engineering graduates and create a diverse pool of candidates entering the engineering workforce.
I have personally been involved in this type of work for over 18 years at three major universities: Arizona State, The Ohio State University and now, Texas A&M.
With women representing over 50% of the population (50.8% in the US) 1, we know that there are few women pursuing engineering academically (19.9% of engineering undergraduates across the US) and even less graduate with degrees (18.7% in 2014) 2. When you combine all of the women that represented Hispanic and African American populations, they make up less than 3% of all engineering undergraduates. For practicing engineers, it hovers around 11% women, depending upon the field.
So, why do we care?
The lack of women in engineering fields directly relates to our ability to innovate and be competitive in a global market. It also directly impacts the number of technical jobs that will be filled in the near future. Baby-boomers are retiring. Over the next 20 years, 10,000 baby boomers will retire every day 3. In addition, women make up over 85% of all consumer purchases, yet few women are represented at the table when engineering decisions are being made. It is a national economic imperative that the majority of our population is represented in the design and manufacturing of products that are bought and sold on a global market.
In 2015, it’s difficult to comprehend inequity, gender bias and discrimination exist. However, I invite you to walk into any engineering university classroom (especially Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, or Computer Science/Systems) and view the number of women in each class. It’s even less likely that you will find a female professor teaching the class. Something is awry and WE is helping to change the landscape and beyond.
Our program centers on research-based practices. It has been proven that women, on average, have higher SAT/ACT scores with higher grades than their male counterparts. That they take science and math courses at relatively the same rate and are successful. Yet, their interest in math and science does not translate to engineering majors in college. If it does, women self-select specialized fields, such as Biomedical Engineering, Chemical Engineering and Environmental Engineering at higher rates. My theory is that their success in high school biology and chemistry (both required for students) leads them to these fields. They are also attracted to the context (esp. medical) and view engineering as a way to benefit society.
Over 30 years’ worth of research has shown that women require positive hands-on experiences to gain confidence BEFORE they have an interest in engineering. Many career inventories will NOT show female students’ interest in engineering because confidence PRECEEDS interest for women. For men, it’s just the opposite. In my opinion, the lack of interest for women in fields such as Mechanical, Electrical and Computer Science/Systems is directly related to the absence of requiring physics, programming, and engineering-related programs during middle and high school. Please quote me, “I believe Physics should be required for all students in high school and introduced at a much younger age”. “Everyone should take physics”. Requiring this one course could have a major positive impact on the number of students that choose to participate and are successful in engineering programs (male and female).
At Texas A&M, women in engineering represent about 22% of the total population 4. This number includes undergraduate and graduate women. Women are represented in departments at different ratios, depending upon the size of the department and overall student population. The majority of women engineering students are represented in Biomedical Engineering (over 44%), Chemical Engineering (over 36%) and Civil/Environmental Engineering (over 27%). The least represented major for women is Aerospace Engineering (around 11%); surprising as Aerospace usually has a higher representation than Mechanical, on average. With the 25 x 25 initiative, our goal is to expand to include 36% women in the college of engineering by 2025. This equates to 9,000 students; larger than most engineering colleges at major universities in the country.
Lack of interest or discrimination?
In 1972, President Nixon signed Title IX into existence. “Title IX is a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination in any federally funded education program or activity. The principal objective of Title IX is to avoid the use of federal money to support sex discrimination in education programs and provide individual citizens effective protection against those practices” 5. Title IX is well-known for its use to promote equity in athletic programs and to expose sexual harassment issues. However, its main intention was to protect against discrimination in education. The steps leading up to the passage of Title IX included a class action lawsuit from Bernice R. Sandler at University of Maryland in 1968. Under the auspice of the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL), she filed an 80 page complaint and named over 250 universities that were charged two years later. She filed the complaint after she was passed over for consideration for a faculty position at the University of Maryland. When inquiring why she was not considered, a male colleague replied she was, “too strong a woman”. Her research found that an amendment of the Civil Rights Act, signed by Pres. Johnson, contained provisions against discrimination on the basis of sex. She used this as the basis for the class action suit after gaining support from congressional leaders.
The question still remains: is the lack of representation of women in engineering due to a lack of interest for the type of jobs or subject matter that they perceive or is it something more?
Over the years, and in mentoring thousands of women in engineering programs, my thought is that discrimination still exists and legally, it is our responsibility to use Title IX to its full capacity. That engineering academic institutions become aware of the repercussions of inequitable hiring practices, pay inequity among faculty and staff members, lack of promotion and tenure for female faculty members, the treatment and comments made to female graduate students in the lab, undergraduate women’s experience on classroom project teams, and the list goes on…
The lack of representation of women in engineering is a Title IX issue that won’t change until we change the male-dominated culture that pervades in our society and in the field. All-girl programs; WE’s outreach, recruitment, and retention efforts, have all been highly successful. I have developed and coordinated hundreds of programs where girls actively engage and enjoy engineering, especially robotics. The one difference is that all-girl programs remove the dominance and suppression that they understand and perpetuate, even though they cannot fully describe (micromessages). To fully understand, please see: #likeagirl video on You Tube.
In engineering, there is also a mixed culture of global influence that needs to be addressed. Many faculty members, graduate and undergraduate students come from foreign countries that view women in different capacities; most view women as lower. In US culture, as well as those cultures, women are not considered as respected peers. Women many times need to “Prove-it-Again”6 as they strive for perfection in order to be acknowledged and accepted.
My own personal experience in engineering; as a graduate student, an administrator, and mentor leads me to believe that the lack of women in engineering is a cultural issue that relates to women’s role and how we are viewed in our society. Until we overcome expectations, women will not be received, valued, or choose to participate in these fields.
It is time that the engineering profession VALUES women for their contributions. It is also time that we include men in the discussion and the solution.
Our WE program is fighting for lasting change. I am working with department heads, students (especially male students) and administrators to concentrate on these issues. Many times, they do not see it as a priority, our programs are seen as a luxury and not needed. It is essential that the WE program is strategically embedded within the engineering curriculum, and the college as a whole, to provide lasting change.
The Texas A&M Women in Engineering vision for inclusion goes beyond an immediate increase in the number of students as we will incorporate inclusion practices throughout our college and elicit meaningful and lasting changes in the engineering culture and workplace as a whole
How can Aggie Women get involved?
WE need your help! I will be enlisting the Aggie Women’s Network to assist with speaking, mentoring, and connecting to our female women students. Women from technical and ANY field are able to offer advice and support to assist our women. Many times, student retention is impacted because women make decisions to leave in isolation. WE is reaching out to students, potential students, parents, industry members, faculty and advocates to change the landscape of our college and university. WE are developing programs to build a community of support. WE will be reaching out to your members to participate!
Thank you for the opportunity to share our program with the Aggie Women’s Network!
Shawna Fletcher, MS BME
Director, Women in Engineering Program
Texas A&M University
1 U.S. Census Bureau: State and County QuickFacts. Last Revised: Thursday, 14-Mar-2013.
2 Yoder, B.L., American Society for Engineering Education, Engineering by the Numbers Report, 2014.
3 Schmitz, B., Engineering Brain Drain: Dealing with Retirement of Boomer Generation, PTC Creo, July 6, 2011.
4 Texas A&M University, DARS Accountability Report, un-certified data, 2015.
5 US Department of Justice, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, chapter 38, sec. 1681.
6 Williams, J.C., Dempsey, R., What Works for Women at Work, NY University Press, 2014.