By Alexa Malaspino
Picture your STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) classroom or workplace. How many women do you see? You might be able to count the number of women on one hand. According to the US Department of Commerce (DOC), 47% of the college educated workforce were women in 2015, while only 24% of the STEM workforce were women (DOC, 2017). Furthermore, research presented at the American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention revealed that nearly 40% of women who earn engineering degrees quit engineering as a profession or never enter the field (Fouad, 2014). Why do so few women pursue and persist in engineering? The University of Houston Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Industry Advisory Board (IAB) met to discuss that very question. In this article, you will see the findings presented to the Advisory Board and our recommendations to UH ECE for improving the recruitment and retention of women in engineering. I have included personal anecdotes throughout as well. First, I will show you some research results you might be familiar with.
To understand why women are not choosing to major in engineering, it is useful to look at early gender stereotypes and how they form. Women are steered away from STEM starting when they enter elementary school as evidenced by “draw-a-scientist” studies. A team at Northwestern University analyzed five decades of studies in which researchers asked participants of different ages to draw a scientist. The gender the participant drew revealed their gender biases. The results of the study revealed that children learn to associate men with science in school. At age six, 30% of girls and 85% of boys drew a male scientist. These numbers increased to 50% and 94% at age ten and a startling 75% and 99% by age 16 (Miller, 2018). This coincides with a change in early stereotypes regarding gender. According to a study published in Science Magazine, five-year-olds believed that both genders are brilliant and nice but six and seven-year-olds labeled girls as nice and boys as brilliant (Bian, 2017). Something is happening early in the education systems that teaches both boys and girls that women do not belong in STEM.
Many of us are largely unaware of our own biases, myself included. I am a female engineer who is highly involved in engineering outreach efforts targeting young girls; however, I also implicitly associate men with STEM. I first learned of this bias when I took the Harvard Implicit Bias quiz. I refused to believe my results and immediately took the quiz again – only to receive the same results. After some reflection I concluded that this unconscious bias likely results from what I see every day in my job – roughly 80% of STEM professionals are men (DOC, 2017). I encourage you to visit https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.html to reveal if you have any implicit biases. You might be as surprised as I was at the results.
Let’s take another look at the research to further explore why there are so few women in STEM. According to the National Academy of Engineers (NAE), young students have a limited understanding of what engineers do. Children connect the word “engineering” to the word “engine” and conclude that engineering is related to vehicles (NAE, 2008). While some engineers design and build vehicles, there is much more to the field. As children get older, they learn that engineers design and build things but still associate engineering with mechanical and structural projects (Cunningham, 2005). Students need an accurate understanding of engineering in order to make an educated decision to study engineering.
When girls enter high school, many have already lost interest in computing and engineering. According to a study by The Girl Scouts, computing, math, and engineering professions are among the least interesting to high school girls. Conversely, other STEM careers, such as medicine and physical/life sciences, are among the most interesting careers to high school girls (CAWEBL, 2018, pg 11). According to the NAE, this early dismissal of engineering leads to boys rating engineering as a very good career choice twice as often as girls – engineering is the only profession with a gender difference (NAE, 2008). The dramatic difference could exist because engineering careers do not satisfy the career motivators for girls; however, the research suggests otherwise. The following are known career and academic motivators for girls: enjoyment of one’s work or studies, good working environment, making a difference, good income, and flexibility (ASoC, 2005). The National Academy of Engineers conducted a study to determine how to market engineering to all genders and indicates messaging is part of the problem. According to the NAE, the most appealing message to both boys and girls is “engineers make a world of difference”. The second most appealing for girls is “engineering is essential to our health, happiness and safety” and for boys it is “engineers are creative problem solvers.” The third most powerful message for both boys and girls is “engineers help shape the future” (NAE, 2008).
We learned above that many high school girls are interested in STEM careers such as medicine and physical/life sciences but not computing and engineering. We also learned they want to make a difference in their careers while maintaining a good income and flexibility. In my opinion, engineering fulfills the career and academic motivators for girls. So why is there such a large difference in interest between careers that involve similar math and science skills? I believe the reason is messaging. Rather than telling students that engineers make a difference by developing solutions to the world’s toughest problems, our message to students focuses on engineering as challenging but rewarding and the math and science proficiency needed to be an engineer. We focus on the inputs needed to become an engineer rather than the outputs of the career, such as an ability to make a difference. High school girls hear our messages and believe they need to have straight A’s in math and science to consider engineering as a possible career path. While basic math and science proficiency is needed for an engineering career, leading and overemphasizing the importance of math and science discourages high school girls from considering the field. We never hear a doctor lead with the stress of standardized tests, the many years of education, and the massive amounts of debt they acquire when talking to high schoolers about their jobs. Instead, we hear them talk about the thrill of saving a life and how meaningful they find their career. This is how we can capture the attention of high school girls.
What does the research presented above mean for University of Houston? By the time students enter college, women have lost interest in engineering and as a result, female enrollment in engineering is low. According to UH-ECE enrollment data, in 2017 only 16% of freshman applicants were women and the incoming freshman cohort comprised of 14% women. This puts the incoming female ECE students at an immediate disadvantage, as they have few role models and are expected to conform to “masculine ways of learning” in the classroom (Tonso, 1996).
The UH ECE Department wants to increase the number of women in Electrical and Computer Engineering and has asked the Industry Advisory Board for recommendations regarding how to do so.
The IAB listened to and discussed the research summarized above and put together three recommendations for UH ECE:
- Benchmark the universities that have achieved high female ECE graduation rates. Port tactics to UH where applicable.
- Conduct training of students during orientation on professional behavior and coping skills; refresh the training at the beginning of the Capstone Projects.
- Establish a vigorous outreach program that features female ECE students interacting with early middle school students.
The first recommendation is simple. Rather than reinventing the wheel, UH should replicate an engineering program that had previous success in recruiting and retaining women. We recommend that UH study formal programs that have and have not been successful at other Universities and Colleges. UH ECE should broaden the search to other engineering disciplines and departments that have successfully retained women - not just ECE departments. If feasible, these best practices should be implemented within the UH ECE department.
The second recommendation is to develop professional and support training for students within UH ECE. This training should be targeted toward both men and women and focus on professional behavior in the workplace. The first step toward eliminating discrimination is recognizing that it does occur in workplaces and engineering professions. We recommend exposing implicit biases and how they work with students, faculty, and staff within the department. While working to eliminate discrimination in the workplace, minorities must be given the tools necessary to navigate through difficult environments. I attended an all-girls high school. When I entered my freshman engineering program, I suddenly went from a majority student to a minority student. My new peers were predominately male, and we often had communication issues. I worked through these issues, but it was a difficult process. I learned about different communication styles during my senior year of college, which emphasized that women are typically more relational in their communication and men are typically more factual. I immediately recalled my experiences during freshman year and thought how helpful it would have been to learn about these perceived differences sooner, so I could better understand my peers’ perspectives. This would have allowed us to understand and leverage our differences when working on projects. If UH ECE provides professional training, including diversity training, during orientation, then students will be better equipped to leverage their differences in a productive manner and understand how to work together. This will lead to happier students and hopefully higher retention of women in engineering. We must provide support for women in engineering, while simultaneously working to change the culture in engineering so these programs eventually are no longer necessary.
The third recommendation is to start reaching out to younger students. Biases are formed as early as elementary school, and many girls have already discounted engineering as a career by the time they reach high school. How do we eliminate the biases high schoolers have formed? We need to reach out to younger students and eliminate gender biases before they fully form. While UH ECE students are engaged in outreach efforts with local high schools, no middle school programs currently exist. The board recommends that UH develop an outreach program to specifically engage early middle school students. This program should target both boys and girls in the local community. The sessions should be led primarily by women to provide aspiring engineering students of both genders with female role models. In these outreach programs, it is also important we focus on messaging that resonates with all genders, such as “engineers make a world of difference”, “engineering is essential to our health, happiness and safety”, “engineers are creative problem solvers”, and “engineers help shape the future.”
Fourteen percent of the 2017 freshman engineering cohort at UH are women (ECE Enrollment). The UH ECE Industry Advisory Board discussed the findings presented and developed three actionable recommendations to UH ECE, which we believe will help improve those numbers. Let’s go teach the world that engineers make a world of difference and that we need people with diverse backgrounds and experiences to do so!
I want to acknowledge Diana De La Rosa-Pohl for presenting the research shared above to the University of Houston Electrical and Computer Engineering Industry Advisory Board. Her presentation helped the Board develop informed recommendations to the Department.
I also want to acknowledge Jennifer Groh, Susan Bayley, and the Purdue University Women in Engineering Department for the training, research, and ideas they shared with me during my undergraduate education at Purdue University. They have influenced many of my opinions and inspired my interest in promoting women in engineering.
Bian, L., Leslie, S. J., Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science Magazine, 355 (6323), 389-391. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6323/389/tab-pdf
Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders. (2018). Increasing the Number of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). https://advancingwomeninbusiness.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/IncreasingtheNumberofWomeninSTEM_Report.pdf
Cunningham, C., Lachapelle, C., & Lindgren-Streicher, A. (2005, June 12-15). Assessing Elementary School Students Conceptions of Engineering and Technology. Paper presented at the 2005 American Society for Engineering and Technology, Portland, OR.
De La Rosa-Pohl, D. (April 20, 2018). Women & Girls in STEM. Presented at the ECE Industry Advisory Board Meeting. Houston, TX.
Engineers, A. S. o. C., Foundation, W. E., & Foundation, N. S. (2005). Extraordinary Women Engineers: Final Report: American Society of Civil Engineers. http://kellrobotics.org/files/pdf/EWE.pdf
Fouad, N.A. (2014). Leaning in, but getting pushed back (and out). Presentation delivered at the American Psychological Association Annual Convention. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/08/pushed-back.pdf
Groh, J., Bayley, S. (2017). Training Engineering Message. Presented at Purdue University Introduce a Girl to Engineering training. West Lafyette, IN.
Miller, D. I., Nolla, K. M., Eagly, A. H., & Uttal, D. H. (2018). The development of children's gender‐science stereotypes: A meta‐analysis of 5 decades of U.S. Draw‐A‐Scientist studies. Child Development, 0(0). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cdev.13039
National Academy of Engineering. (2008). Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
Ratliff, K., Bar-Anan, Y., Lai, C., Smith, C. T., Nosek, B., Greenwald, T. Project Implicit. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/research/
Tonso, K. L. (1996). The impact of cultural norms on women. Journal of Engineering Education, 85(3), 217-225. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/j.2168-9830.1996.tb00236.x
University of Houston Electrical and Computer Engineering. (2017). Enrollment Data.
United States Department of Commerce. (2017). Women in STEM – 2017 Update. http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/women-in-stem-2017-update.pdf
Alexa Malaspino is with Stryker Corporation, which is a Fortune 500 medical technologies firm based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and a member of the UH ECE Industry Advisory Board. AJMalaspino [at] gmail.com