Women in engineering

Tufts takes the lead in national conference on gender equity

For years, so few women studied engineering that at some colleges, all the restrooms were just for men.

While the number of women engineers has increased, it is still dismally low: Women comprise 56.8 percent of the U.S. workforce, yet only 8.5 percent of the country's engineers are women. Colleges and universities with engineering programs have long struggled to figure out how to recruit women into engineering programs and make sure they stay.

Tufts has long been a leader in encouraging more young women to consider careers in science and engineering. © Mark Morelli

In January, Tufts School of Engineering, in collaboration with Intel Foundation, is sponsoring a two-day conference in Washington, D.C., aimed at helping faculty and administrators from the nation's engineering schools address issues related to women in engineering. The conference, called Leveraging Experience to Accelerate Progress, or the LEAP Conference in Gender Equity, will take place January 14-15, and is being hosted by the National Academy of Engineering.

Intel chose Tufts a co-sponsor of the conference because the university has successfully attracted women students and faculty to its engineering programs. The student body at the School of Engineering is 32 percent female, twice the national average, and 16 percent of its faculty is female, about four times the national average.

At the forefront
Tufts is known for science and engineering programs that encourage women and girls to consider the fields as careers. To that end, the School of Engineering offers a month-long women-in-engineering summer program for high school girls and a program called Girls Get SET, which pairs middle school girls with Tufts engineering students and faculty to work on a program with a local museum. The Center for Engineering Educational Outreach at Tufts has worked with teachers and students around the country to integrate engineering concepts into K-12 classrooms. In addition, Tufts has created a national web database (www.wieo.org) for all women-in-engineering programs in the country.

"For far too long," Engineering Dean Ioannis N. Miaoulis said, "women have been under-represented in engineering programs across the country. Tufts is at the forefront of not only recruiting women by bringing engineering programs to middle and high school students, but retaining students by offering a range of programs designed to interest women. In addition, we work hard at making sure we have a large number of women on our faculty, and they serve as role models and mentors."

Miaoulis will be one of the speakers at the conference, where the goal is to exchange information, highlight programs that address gender issues in engineering and give participants the opportunity to come up with a plan of action for their schools.

Christine Cunningham, Tufts' director of engineering education research, explained that a select group of colleges and universities have been invited to send teams led by their engineering deans. In addition to Tufts, other schools include Carnegie Mellon, Duke, Georgia Tech, MIT, Princeton and the University of Michigan.

"Deans of engineering play pivotal roles in promoting initiatives and strategies that improve gender equity in engineering," Cunningham said. "However, one of the challenges that a dean of engineering faces is that there is only one dean of engineering at a school. The conference will provide a forum where they can interact with colleagues from other institutions to get advice and learn from their efforts."

Nationwide study
Cunningham became involved with the conference as a result of a study she directed, "The Women's Experiences in College Engineering Project," known as WECE. The three-year study, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation, surveyed some 25,000 undergraduate women in engineering at 53 colleges nationwide and is the first longitudinal, quantitative analysis of women in engineering. Cunningham will present the study's findings at the conference.

Among the study's conclusions are that women who perceived the environment in their engineering departments and classrooms as supportive were more likely to continue in engineering than women who viewed their environment as less encouraging. Becoming part of a larger engineering community of peers, mentors and faculty is important to many women, the study showed. Students who participated in engineering activities with either a social or enrichment focus were more likely to continue studying engineering than those who did not.

In addition to discussions about recruiting and retaining women as engineering students and faculty, topics at the conference will include curriculum reform, the climate in engineering departments and initiating and sustaining institutional change.