Female engineering majors are looking to increase their ranks in the field and debunk old stereotypes.
It used to be awkward for Laura Ashley Harris to walk into her college classes. Her male classmates would shoot her looks with a clear message: “Why are you here?”
Now, they know she belongs.
“It can be uncomfortable if you don’t know the people,” Harris said of studying engineering as a woman. “But where I’m at now, I’m with people I know. And they know I can hold my own.”
Men have long outnumbered women in engineering departments across the country, according to a 2012 National Science Foundation report that found the number of science and engineering degrees women are earning has hardly budged in recent years. The rate is actually decreasing in some majors, according to the report.
But women such as Harris, an industrial engineering graduate student at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, feel their situation is steadily improving.
Harris is president of her university’s Society of Women Engineers, an organization that supports female engineers on college campuses and conducts outreach to K-12 students on the benefits of earning a degree in engineering.
What Harris sees during that outreach, she said, bodes well for the future of women in engineering. She says young girls are enthusiastic about engineering-based tasks, but as they become older, stereotypes about the male-dominated field limit their aspirations.
“Here on campus, I don’t think it’s as bad,” Harris said. “But going out into new working environments can be hard because there’s still older people who believe those stereotypes.”
Taking large introductory classes where men adjust to studying with women helps ease the disparity, said Alyssa Kenny, an electrical and biomedical engineering senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.
Kenny is the vice president of her campus’s Alpha Omega Epsilon chapter, an engineering and technical sorority. The organization, she said, fosters sisterhood and a place to connect for students who are typically the minority.
“It’s a little intimidating being a woman in engineering,” Kenny said. “Sometimes people have expectations, whether it’s that you’re going to be really, really smart and really, really good or, because you’re a woman, you’re not going to be as good.”
Christine Valle, a mechanical engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, leads her university’s Women in Engineering program. The group aids female engineers’ development by pairing freshmen and sophomores with student mentors and partnering with corporations to provide scholarships. These projects align with Women in Engineering’s mission to support students who might be in classes with as few as one woman for every 30 men, Valle said.
“You can imagine that it’s very different in terms of the classroom dynamics,” she said. “It’s definitely a little bit of a challenge, but we have a lot of girls who say that they love it and it’s interesting, and the guys are very supportive, so it’s worth it.”
Despite the stereotypes and awkwardness female engineers can face, Valle said there are rewards for them after graduation. Women can be especially desired in the engineering fields, she said, because companies want a wide range of viewpoints in product development.
“It’s actually the opposite of what you’d think,” Valle said. “Because these companies want a more diverse workforce.”
Women’s potential in engineering makes Valle hopeful, she said, but stereotypes still exist and concern her about the industry’s future.
“I want to be optimistic, but in general I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said. “The main thing is that people are not clued in to engineering, or in general they have wrong ideas of engineering. So we have a vast pool of untapped talent.”
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