While being interviewed for an engineering internship two summers ago, Ohio State University student Ellie Cooper was told the position entailed an hour-long lunch break, enough time for her to stop by the mall and visit Victoria’s Secret.
“One man made a couple of really odd comments about women, and it kind of hit me then that there are still men that have a perception of women being inferior, and question their abilities when it comes to engineering,” Cooper said.
Cooper ultimately took the position and ended up enjoying her summer with the company, despite the initial experience in the interview. Though women in the traditionally male-dominated field of engineering have continued to make strides toward bridging the persisting gender gap, disparity and inequity are still prevalent among college-aged females pursuing degrees in the sciences.
Paige Smith, the director of the Women in Engineering (WIE) program at the University of Maryland, said her own experiences with prejudice inspired her to advocate for female participation in engineering, an effort she believes is critical for providing a greater depth of understanding and perspectives within the field.
“When I had the experience working for the men, I realized how important it was to bring diversity of thought into the field of engineering and focusing on women was an important way to do that,” Smith said.
WIE’s primary missions are outreach and retention, and Smith said the organization primarily works to recruit K-12 women and serve as mentors for young women embarking upon studies in math and science.
“We work really hard to make sure that students see the benefits of becoming an engineer,” she said. “Not only is it an excellent career that’s well-paying and offers a work-life flexibility, but you can also do something really important with it and make a difference.”
After working as the first female faculty member in the department of engineering at the University of Maine, Christine Valle, the director of the Women in Engineering Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said growing accustomed to being a minority in the workplace is challenging.
“It was definitely an issue of me feeling very much out of place [at the University of Maine], and part of why I was feeling out of place was my gender,” she said. “People were highly cognizant of it and not sure what to do with me as a result.”
Though she said the sciences have become increasingly destigmatized for women — particularly in light of the growing popularity of prominent females in high-power technical positions like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer — they still face enduring stereotypes.
“It just seemed somewhat unfair to me that a lot of women were either discouraged from pursuing the field, or were basically taking themselves out of it, thinking the jobs were not interesting or that they were only for white, male nerds,” she said.
Kerri Kremer, a student at the University of Dayton, said while she has hope for the future of women in engineering, there is still substantial work to be done to increase representation of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
“I think the gender disparity is becoming better, but it definitely has a ways to go,” she said. “My experience interning showed that it is rare to find a female engineer in the workplace. I think now there is more of an effort being made to encourage females to pursue degrees in STEM fields, but I think it will be a long time before they bridge the gap between men and women.”
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