Why Women Don’t Study Engineering — And What 1 Mass. College Is Doing About It

Benjamin Linder, left, an associate professor, teaches User-Oriented Collaborative Design at Olin College. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

Benjamin Linder, left, an associate professor, teaches User-Oriented Collaborative Design at Olin College. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

BOSTON — A 2011 study by the American Society for Engineering Education found women accounted for only 18 percent of undergraduate students in engineering.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, that number is even lower: only 291 women out of 1,833 undergraduates, or 16 percent, at the College of Engineering this year.

Engineering As A Performing Art

Kelly Kennedy liked physics and math when she was growing up. But she found that was not the case with a lot of her classmates.

“For some reason, a lot of girls don’t take the AP Physics classes or AP Calc classes and more guys do,” she said.

Kennedy just graduated from UMass Amherst’s College of Engineering with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, an especially unusual field for women.

“A lot of guys will become interested in cars,” Kennedy said, “and then someone will tell them, ‘You should become an engineer and then you can design the cars,’ but I think as girls, we don’t get that as much.”

And it’s not just mechanical engineering. It’s engineering in general.

“Culturally, we tend to think that engineering is not for women,” said Yevgeniya Zastavker, an associate professor of physics at Olin College of Engineering, a small school of fewer than 400 students in Needham, founded in 1997. “Engineering is mostly for men.”

From its beginning, Olin wanted to attract more women to engineering.

Olin’s president, Rick Miller, said the way engineering colleges teach engineering turns women and other students away who might otherwise be great engineers. He views engineering as a performing art. But he compares the way most schools teach it to what would happen at a music school where students don’t touch instruments until their senior year.

“You’d be talking about point and counterpoint, harmony and melody and tempo and all the things that are behind the structure of the way music is created,” Miller said. “In the fourth year, if you’re still here, we’ll ask you to play a scale on a real violin and then we’ll give you a music degree.”

When those freshman and sophomore engineering courses are centered on theory and math and problem sets, they can be daunting.

Caitlyn Butler, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UMass Amherst, said women often respond differently than men to the grades they get in those courses.

“I think there’s a confidence issue,” Butler said. “I think there’s kind of a gender gap there. When a male student gets their first test back, and they get a less-than-perfect grade on it, they’re like, ‘All right! I passed. I survived. I did all right.’ And then a girl may say, ‘I didn’t do so well on this. I’m not cut out for it.’ ”

A colleague of Butler’s, Shelly Peyton, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at UMass Amherst, points to a feedback loop that also keeps women from studying engineering.

“Girls get a little frustrated when there’s only 10 girls in that class of 70,” Peyton said. “And I think that leads into this confidence issue, too. ‘Wow! I’m kind of alone here.’ ”

Beginning Early

Professors and students report that men don’t make it easy for women in their classes.

Paula Santiago is pursuing a master’s degree in engineering management at UMass, where she also studied engineering as an undergraduate.

“There’s all kinds of stereotypes,” she said. “I was in a lab a couple of hours ago, and the way men talk about women sometimes, like they’re lesser or they might not make the best conclusions. ‘They’re dominated by their emotions than their brains.’ I think women are generally scared, maybe, of the field, and so they feel maybe go to an easier field.”

The director of diversity programs at the UMass Amherst College of Engineering, Paula Sturdevant Rees, said to get more women involved in engineering, you have to begin early.

“Some studies are showing that as early as fifth grade girls have decided whether they feel they can do math or not, and so if you don’t intervene then and show them different ways math is used and why math as a tool is really cool and really fun, you risk even losing them as early as fifth and sixth grade,” Sturdevant Rees said.

Olin College has demonstrated that it can attract women to engineering. Professor Zastavker says, in part, it’s because Olin has redefined engineering.

“It’s about us,” Zastavker said. “It’s about humans; it’s about what we as humans need and how we can better our lives, and if we understand engineering in that way, we probably will attract more women, but it needs to start very early.”

And students at Olin learn in a way many academics say is especially attractive to women.

“One of the ways that we are experimenting with is so-called project-based learning,” Zastavker said. “It allows students to be autonomous learners. We ask them to develop their own goals and move toward those goals.”

Challenges For Public Universities  

The mandatory sophomore-year class, User-Oriented Collaborative Design, is held in a multicolored classroom: students’ post-it notes are all over the walls. The cacophony you would expect as students come into class remains throughout the class.

On one recent day students clustered into problem-solving teams. They began the semester with a group of people whose needs they must serve, and, with their team, develop a technology that improves the lives of the users.

“For me, the reason that I chose Olin was I really like the way they’ve said an engineering education doesn’t have to be sitting in a classroom and being lectured at for the most part,” said Sophie Seitz, who was part of a team trying to come up with technology that would help medical providers who volunteer abroad.

“We’re doing engineering because it’s about people, with people and not in spite of people,” said Associate Professor of Design and Engineering Benjamin Linder, who teaches the design course. “They start with a group of people and they end with a proposal for a product or service, something that would add value to their lives.”

At UMass Amherst, Sturdevant Rees points out another reason women don’t study engineering: Women just don’t see that many women engineers.

“Careers in law and medicine are much more tangible to them,” Sturdevant Rees said. “There’s more role models out there.”

Olin College is successful at attracting women because, from its beginning, its freshman class was half women.

In recent years, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has had similar success. Women now make up 42 percent of engineering undergraduates at MIT.

At UMass Amherst, Peyton points out it’s not so easy.

“At a private school, you have a lot more control over your admissions,” Peyton said. “You can diversify your class on purpose. Unfortunately, UMass Admissions controls that, and they’re trying to get the best kids, and I think that split is about 50-50, but they’re not controlling how many of those women are going into engineering versus…”

“Business,” a colleague interjected.

“English majors,” Peyton continued.

So the biggest factor in attracting women to engineering may be simply to create a climate where half your students are already women. Easy to do for private colleges, not so easy for public universities.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Shelly Peyton’s last name. It has been updated with the correct spelling, and we regret the error.

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  • amazonjn

    Sounds like marketing or engineering sans math. So is quantitative rigor no longer required in this field? It seems math is gender-neutral. Are we now condescending with gender stereotypes and re-engineering the discipline to suit? Gender stereotypes are breaking down as we, e.g., stop restricting our girls’ interests to domesticity, etc. I hope we are not dumbing down disciplines to achieve the valuable goals of more women in STEM.

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/fthys Fred Thys

      No, they still have to be good at math. When Olin opened, they recruited from the top 100 math and science public high schools in the country because those schools were already gender-balanced.

      • josette

        Background in calculus and physics are also an admissions requirement for Olin. Oliners do still take at least 7 math and science classes; they’re just not all pre-reqs for the project classes.

  • texassa

    When I turned 16 and started driving my parents’ old station wagon, I immediately began calculating and tracking the mpg when I refueled. I proudly showed my records to my dad one day and he casually replied, “yeah, guys are always calculating things like that.” I was puzzled, but more than that, I was discouraged. I never bothered to calculate my mpg again.

    So, that story, times a lifetime, times every girl in the world = 18% engineering students. You’re welcome.

  • Cypress Frankenfeld

    I felt a little put-off by the claim that project-based learning and design-thinking attract women specifically. Shouldn’t those pedagogical concepts attract men as well? I find project-based learning very appealing. What makes those methods inherently more appealing to women? I would like some links to research from the “many academics” that were referenced without attribution.

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/fthys Fred Thys

      Project-based learning and design-thinking don’t, of course, attract women specifically. What academics at Olin told me was that if you appeal to women, you will also appeal to men.

    • gotham77

      Nothing makes them more appealing to women. Some sharp academics merely recognized this report as an opportunity to get some free promotion for their programs.

  • Thinkfreeer

    As if a gender gap in math, science, or engineering is somehow a bad thing and needs correction?

    • MelissaJane

      If you think otherwise, I would be interested in your elaboration. Yes, I do think that a gender gap in any of those three areas is a negative, and I do think it should be addressed.

      • gotham77

        It’s actually an interesting question, and if I can I’d like to direct at you the same challenge you made to him. Can you elaborate? Are you suggesting that all professions should appeal to both genders at equal rates? I’d never really thought about it but I’m not sure I’m convinced that all other things bring equal every profession should by definition be equal men and women.

        • MelissaJane

          I agree – it IS an interesting question. I don’t have any particular sense that every profession ought to be 50/50 split between men and women. But I think there is plenty of evidence that the gender disparity we see in STEM areas is a product of culture, not natural aptitude, and for that reason, I do see it as negative – because I think that in any situation where the participation of a certain group (by gender, ethnicity, age, etc.) is underrepresented or suppressed because of external expectations about that group’s skills, talents, and aptitude, then we are losing out on valuable contributions that could be made by members of that group in that particular area. Where STEM is concerned, not necessarily ‘valuable contributions with a female perspective,’ or ‘valuable contributions that only women can make;’ simply valuable contributions. I also don’t think it’s good for women to have their options curtailed. Stories like the one told elsewhere in the comments by the high school teacher who said a woman was “too pretty to last” in engineering are great examples of how this happens and how women get the message they should go elsewhere. That’s obviously not good for women; anything that restricts a person’s natural exercise of their talents is detrimental – it’s not helpful to men, or to an individual man, to be told that only women are nurses so he should take his empathy and his interest in health care somewhere else, for example. But it’s important to recognize that it’s not only the suppressed group who suffers when a group is shut out; we all lose.

          • gotham77

            I never said anything about “aptitude.” Isn’t it within the realm of possibility that even if all other things were equal, women would still choose to go into that profession in smaller numbers simply because a lot of them just don’t like it? Men and women are just as good but that doesn’t mean they’re the same. There are obvious differences in the preferences of men and women in how they use their leisure time…for example, men seem to enjoy watching sports in larger numbers than women, even when girls and women are encouraged to take an interest in them. So why should it surprise us if men and women have different preferences in the careers they choose? And if they do, is that really a problem as long as men and women get equal OPPORTUNITY in the careers they choose?

            Look, I’m not a reactionary that’s reflexively disputing the impact of sexism. I’m a career counselor at an engineering college in the Boston area. I’ve worked at three other engineering schools. I’ve witnessed sexism from faculty. I’ve counseled female students on the challenges of trying to get ahead in a profession that is dominated by men. I know the stories in this forum from other women recounting the comments they got from parents and teachers (et al) that discouraged them from pursuing STEM careers (or could have discouraged them if they’d been less assertive) are very real. I’m not discounting any of that. I also think there may be some real merit to Larry Summers’s suggestion that the way schools teach math and science puts girls at a disadvantage not because girls have less aptitude for those subjects, but simply because boys and girls might learn in different ways and the way those subjects are taught favors the way boys learn. I am acutely aware of the barriers girls and women face pursuing these careers, believe me.

            I’ll be the first to tell you that all other things AREN’T equal. But even if they were, that still doesn’t mean men and women will EVER be equally represented in the profession. The goal shouldn’t be to get female enrollment at engineering schools at 50% and we can’t just conclude that “something’s wrong” if it isn’t. It’s about opportunity, not outcome. Right now there ISN’T equal opportunity, and that should be fixed. But that equal opportunity needs to be the goal, not equal outcome. If it turns out that no matter how much it’s encouraged engineering appeals to women less than it appeals to men, then we should just accept that and not turn it into a problem that needs to be fixed.

          • MelissaJane

            I don’t think that equal representation should be the goal, and I completely agree that equal opportunity is the right goal. And right now, we don’t have equal opportunity; ergo, a problem that needs fixing. Who said anything about 50/50 representation being the right goal? I didn’t and neither did the article, as far as I can tell.

      • Thinkfreeer

        I do not think it is a bad thing. Much has been done to open opportunities for various groups of individuals who have either felt or been seen as disadvantaged for some reason. I think this article relates to there being less interest in the female gender to pursue this area. I don’t think we should do anything about that. We need more engineers, and if females want to pursue that field they are welcome to do so. What more could you want? The idea that some man saying something about women not being welcome or suitable should just be ignored. We can’t cure your oversensitivity. Too bad.

  • Kristina S

    I was lucky to have a family member encourage me to study engineering, so I never questioned if that was the right path for me. My work requires me to give instructions to me much older than me, and force them to do something they don’t want to. I also discuss design options with building owners who do not want to spend. $ unnecessarily, and who may pressure me to change my opinion.

    If a young woman is not prepared to deal with the pressures described in these classes, it may be better that she not pursue engineering. So I believe it’s up to our society and families to support strong candidates for these careers.

    I think everyone is an engineer in some way, we’re all solving problems and looking for the right answer in our particular field. Lucky for me, I’m also surrounded by strong women engineers as the foundation of my social network.

  • http://www.the-hired-pen.com Bruce Mendelsohn

    Kudos to Olin College and Rick Miller for encouraging women to consider engineering as a viable career option. We wholeheartedly support these efforts at MIT, especially in the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program, where the greater percentage of our “Gordon Engineering Leaders” are women.

    As revealed in the National Academy of Engineering’s 2008 book, “Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering,” part of the challenge is to help students understand what engineering actually do. Furthermore, the national survey undertaken as part of the NAE study found that while most girls believe women can be engineers as well as men, when asked to name engineers, most students can only name men.

    Similar to the project-based learning that takes place at Olin, in the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program, we place our students (women and men) in teams, doing real-life conceive-design-implement-operate exercises–very much like the projects they will work on as engineers in industry. We assess their performance and provide on-the-spot feedback. Over their one or two years in the program, our students aggregate a portfolio of assessments that highlight their strengths as aspiring engineering leaders–and challenge them to work on their weaknesses.

    Along with mentorship and input from leaders in engineering industry, the personal and professional growth our students (particularly the women) experience in the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program helps develop their confidence and reinforce their choice of engineering as a career choice.

  • Gadsden Purchase

    It is impossible to understand our complex, distributed, technologically-driven modern civilization without recognizing that each of us is ignorant regarding almost every facet of it.

  • Declan J Sheehy

    Here at Smith College, the only women’s college with a engineering program, Picker engineering students are creative and committed to academic rigor. Their education encompasses: strong math, science and engineering knowledge and skills; continuous self-discovery; effective communication; critical thinking; socially responsible decision making; and global citizenship as engineers of a sustainable future.

    • gotham77

      So in other words, it’s just like every other engineering curriculum.

    • Des’rae Davis

      It’s not the only women’s college with an engineering program, there is one at Sweet Briar College. The small class sizes make it a comfortable environment, as well as placing all the focus on us.

  • Lawrence

    That’s funny. Wasn’t a Harvard professor fired for explaining that females are not studying engineering as much as males?

    • MelissaJane

      No, actually.

  • Lawrence

    Such lazy reporting! Does not investigate all scientifically valid ideas.

    How about the scientific research regarding gender differences that Larry Summer’s was talking about that drew a firestorm of controversy.


    • gotham77

      Would YOU want to touch that and expose yourself to criticism after the way Summers’ words were distorted and he was falsely accused of sexism?

      • Lawrence

        Yeah, well that’s the problem with being scientific and intelligent. You get activists who don’t like the science, are offended by it and it stunts our intelligent growth and discussions.

        So is it helpful that the feminists distort science to make themselves feel better?

        And journalism has to capitulate to this?

  • gotham77

    All the things these schools are bragging about doing, claiming it makes them different from how other schools teach engineering…it’s what every school does. Three years of all theory before you get to do any actual engineering? Ridiculous, that doesn’t exist. The guy from Olin is comparing themselves to an inferior standard that doesn’t really exist.

  • Thinkfreeer

    While I agree that one of the most important things one learns at college is better ways to learn more, engineering knowledge is also very important. If you want to be a PE, you will need both.

  • Guest

    Female engineer here – I’m a little put off by this as well.

  • FemaleEngineer2

    Female engineer here – I’m a little put off by this as well. The focus needs to be on attracting future engineers, with equal opportunity for both genders. PS, project-based learning is more fun for everyone, haha, come on now. And finally, this: “…the biggest factor in attracting women to engineering may be simply to create a climate where half your students are already women,” speaks pretty weakly of women in general.

  • Lisianne

    I’m a (retired) female engineer. The idea that I could do anything I chose to as far as a career went came from my father. While growing up, he showed an avid interest in anything I liked school-wise and would help me with the math, physics and chemistry that I had trouble with. To not be able to do what I wanted was not an element of my universe. Luckily, I still had that attitude when in engineering school, which was brutal and I was at a distinct disadvantage not knowing how motors worked or circuit boards and the like. But failure was not something I had experienced and I would NOT FAIL getting that degree, no matter what. That same stamina was what propelled me to be a good manufacturing engineer.

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