Gender and science

From milkshakes to computers: opening the door to women in engineering

They came from the big guns of engineering schools: MIT, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Michigan, Georgia Tech, Stevens Institute of Technology, Stanford. And they came from smaller schools and from industry, all with the same questions: What can we do to encourage women to study engineering? How can we attract and retain women engineering faculty?

Ioannis N. Miaoulis, former dean of engineering at Tufts, has been a leader in encouraging more women to pursue careers in science. © Scott Robinson

They ranged from deans to faculty members to people involved in programs for women, and they networked and schmoozed, traded ideas and attended workshops and presentations. This gathering at the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C., of 127 people from 25 invited institutions on January 14-15 was the start of what organizers hope will be an effort by those institutions to decide what they should do next to increase the number of women who want to become engineers.

The Leveraging Experience to Accelerate Progress (LEAP) Toward Gender Equity Conference was sponsored by Intel, which asked Tufts University to organize the program because it has been successful in boosting the number of women students and faculty at its School of Engineering. Thirty-two percent of Tufts engineering students—approximately twice the national average—are women. Sixteen percent of Tufts engineering faculty are women—roughly four times the national average.

The overall message conference participants heard was disheartening: According to the National Science Foundation, in 1999 only 23 percent of the nation's physical scientists were women, and 10 percent were engineers. Even worse, only 14 percent of the nation's science faculties comprise women, and only 6 percent of engineering faculties are women.

The importance of social leaning
The conference grew out of a study co-authored by Christine Cunningham, director of engineering education research at Tufts. The three-year study, "The Women's Experiences in College Engineering Project," is the first quantitative analysis of gender issues in engineering and surveyed 25,000 women about why they stayed in or left engineering programs.

Participants learned that women are, in fact, different from men: They want to know how studying engineering will enable them to help others; they fret more than men when their grades aren't as good as they were in high school; and they dislike learning in isolation, preferring to work in teams and be part of a larger social network in their schools. And some look at the life of an academic and find the challenges of trying to earn tenure and also have a family particularly daunting.

Ilene Busch-Vishniac, dean of engineering at Johns Hopkins University, recalls learning that she earned tenure—three days before she gave birth to her first child. "I think the biological differences between men and women really do affect the way we work and our expectations," she said. "While on a day-to-day basis the academic life affords flexibility, the hoops one must jump through to get promoted and to get tenure set expectations that can put an inordinate amount of pressure on people in the junior ranks."

Fairness and opportunity
Allen Fisher, former associate dean for undergraduate education in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University and the co-author of Unlocking the Clubhouse, Women in Computing, said the issue is one of fairness and opportunity. Using his own area of expertise as a reference point, he said, "When you look at society, men and women use computers in the same numbers, but there is a large divide when you look at who is creating and designing computers and software." Fisher said the issue of expanding the pool to include more women is important because it means making room for people of all backgrounds. "We don't want to see anyone blocked from these careers."

The difficulty schools have in attracting women to engineering has no one source. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the keynote speaker at the conference, talked about the kinds of stereotypes children learn early on that promote the idea that science and technology is something boys do. He noted a talking doll that says, "Math is hard, and shopping is fun." A group of children asked to draw a picture of a scientist, he said, drew a white man in a lab coat.

Christine Cunningham, director of engineering education research at Tufts, provided impetus for the national conference with the first quantitative analysis of gender issues in engineering. © Scott Robinson

Ioannis N. Miaoulis, who recently stepped down as dean of the School of Engineering at Tufts, told the audience that some years ago, he visited a Massachusetts middle school to teach kids about engineering. He showed them how the size of a straw made a difference in how quickly a child could make a milkshake disappear. One girl became very excited at the idea of doing a project about the efficiency of straws and the time it took to drink the shake, and Miaoulis was ready to help. Then the girl's teacher took him aside. "Don't pay attention to her," the teacher said. "She's going to be a hairdresser."

Fisher said that studies at Carnegie Mellon showed that women students had spent much less time playing around on computers when they were younger than male students, and that women had fewer role models to emulate.

The conference offered some solutions. At one of the workshops, Glen Ellis, a professor at Smith College, which instituted an engineering program three years ago, said the all-women's school surveyed students and learned that relationships are important to women as is social relevance. Smith designed its curricula accordingly. As a result, instead of offering the standard lecture course, at Smith, students work in groups and help decide what will go on in the classroom. When a course in introductory mechanics is taught, students don't merely learn how to solve problems, they are taught the subject matter in the context of societal issues such as the role of Mexican politics in building earthquake-proof structures. Ellis said the efforts have paid off: There are 21 students in the junior engineering class and double that in the first-year class, which will enter the program this fall.

Passionate engineering
Other schools have found other ways to mentor women in engineering. Miaoulis, who became president of the Boston Museum of Science on January 1, described how students were quitting engineering during their first two years at Tufts because they found it dull. Yet they hadn't actually taken any engineering courses because the standard curriculum first calls for courses in calculus, physics and other sciences. To give students earlier exposure to engineering concepts, Miaoulis proposed a series of what were dubbed half or short courses, intended as an introduction to hands-on experiences with engineering.

"I felt if we could present engineering in a passionate way, we could keep engineering students, so we offered half courses that came from the interest of faculty," Miaoulis said. Among the course offerings were skyscraper design and a study of heat transfer learned via gourmet cooking. Not only did the students enjoy the courses, they understood why they needed all the math and science that was being required. Now the school offers some 70 half courses that are open to liberal arts students as well as engineering students at Tufts.

At the University of Washington, when a position is open, hiring committees are referred to what they call a "faculty recruitment tool kit." Among its suggestions are a list of resources to broaden the pool from which candidates are drawn, including professional organizations and web sites as well as minority recruitment firms and an online directory of women in science, engineering and math.

A broader proposal came from Senator Wyden, who urged conference participants to support the expansion of Title IX, which, since its inception in 1972, has been applied primarily to sports but, in fact, prohibits sex discrimination in all aspects of federally funded education programs. Wyden, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, organized hearings last year on the issue. He asked conference participants to sign a letter he is sending to Secretary of Education Rod Paige to fully enforce Title IX through his department's Office of Civil Rights.

The conference organizers, which, in addition to Intel, included the GE Foundation, Dupont, Exxon Mobil Foundation and Hewlett Packard, are weighing what to do next. Cunningham, Tufts' director of engineering education research, and Meredith Knight, who coordinated the conference, are analyzing surveys that asked what institutions plan to do as a next step. Some participants wrote of their concerns: "Diversity is not a core value of our faculty," wrote one. "I saw how much more other universities are doing than we are," wrote another. Others said they were energized by the conference and would return to campus with some new ideas.

Cathleen Aubin Barton, U.S. education manager for Intel, said the situation boils down to simple math:"Women make up 51 percent of the population, and we want to make sure we have the most creative and talented people. We need to fully tap the population."