The independent news organization of Duke University

Women in STEM: still bridging the gap

"The path to parity nationally lies in reframing engineering in human terms—making clear that it’s more than just playing with gadgets.”
"The path to parity nationally lies in reframing engineering in human terms—making clear that it’s more than just playing with gadgets.”

With the national spotlight focused on encouraging women to pursue science, technology, engineering and math, Duke is examining its own policies.

Approximately 18 percent of undergraduate engineers nationally are women—a figure President Barack Obama has said must increase if the United States is to remain a global leader in research and innovation. At Duke, the numbers are slightly higher, but administrators say there is still improvement to be made—women make up 30 percent of total undergraduates in Pratt School of Engineering and 33 percent of Pratt’s Class of 2018, said Dean of Pratt Thomas Katsouleas.

Katsouleas said he hopes to close the gender gap in coming years—in part by providing more female mentors for undergraduate women and by emphasizing the practical, problem-solving applications of engineering.

“Women, in general, seem more drawn to a major or career path where they can help people,” Katsouleas said. “The path to parity nationally lies in reframing engineering in human terms—making clear that it’s more than just playing with gadgets.”

Behind the numbers

Katsouleas said the statistics—both nationally and at Duke—reveal a need for improvement.

“We’ve separated ourselves relative to the national standard, but we’re still not where we’d like to be,” Katsouleas said.

Senior Charlotte Lawrence, who studies mechanical engineering, said the gender gap is apparent in classes. It appears that the number of girls in her engineering classes has decreased since her freshman year, she added.

“At the start of every semester, I count the number of girls in my classes,” Lawrence said. “I definitely notice.”

Each year, approximately 30 to 40 percent of female Pratt students transfer into Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, The Chronicle previously reported. This rate is higher than the overall transfer rate which resides at 20 to 30 percent.

Peer institutions report varying numbers of women in their engineering programs. At Washington University in St. Louis, 31 percent of engineers in the freshman class are women. Several peer schools, however, show a smaller gender gap, with women making up 43 percent of undergraduates at Cornell University’s College of Engineering and 46 percent at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering.

“We’ve definitely made strides in the last couple of years,” said Chris Ramsey, the assistant dean at Wash U.’s school of engineering, noting that the school has an active society of women engineers and many female mentors for undergraduate women. “But there’s still progress to be made.”

Some STEM majors within Trinity College of Arts and Sciences report similar gender gaps—only 20 percent of computer science majors, for example, are women.

But Owen Astrachan, the computer science major’s director of undergraduate studies, pointed out that the issue lies not in attracting women to computer science—it lies in keeping them interested. Between 40 and 50 percent of students enrolled in the introductory course are women, he said.

“That’s the number that’s way up,” Astrachan said. “Our goal is to figure out why women haven’t been continuing, and then to find a way to get them to.”

Searching for a solution

Katsouleas emphasized the importance of female mentorship as part of any solution. Women professors make up around 18 percent of Pratt’s faculty—a number he says he hopes to improve.

“Mentorship is critically important,” Katsouleas said. “Progress in terms of recruiting female professors has flattened in recent years, so our current challenge is building a faculty with more parity.”

Junior Michaela Walker, a biomedical engineering major, said she found a role model in Rebecca Simmons, adjunct associate professor of engineering, who taught Walker’s introduction to engineering class during her first semester at Duke.

“It would be such an advantage if every female engineering student had the opportunity to interact with a female professor,” Walker said. “I know it helped me a lot, and I hope everyone has that same chance.”

Walker said programs should target girls before they arrive at college, noting that by the time most students get to Duke, they have basically decided whether or not engineering is for them.

President Obama has also emphasized the importance of involving women in STEM fields, declaring that the country cannot expect to maintain a stream of new ideas with participation from all Americans.

An advertisement put out by Verizon this summer draws attention to this issue, highlighting the ways societal pressures—both subtle and overt—push girls away from science and technology. The video, which has over three million views, shows that 66 percent of fourth grade girls say they like math and science, but only one in seven engineers are women.

Video: Verizon Wireless

The student-run organization FEMMES—Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering and Science—aims to address this issue, exposing Durham girls in fourth through sixth grades to STEM subjects.

Program director Elisa Berson, a senior, said Duke professors—both men and women—have helped students engage elementary school girls through hands-on activities and mentorship.

"FEMMES would not be possible without the invaluable support of Duke faculty, both women and men alike," Berson said in an email in August.

Reframing the discussion

Katsouleas said there is a common misconception that women don’t go into engineering because it’s so difficult.

But he pointed out that the Grand Challenge Scholars Program—which asks students to address the 21st century’s 14 greatest engineering challenges—attracts men and women in equal numbers.

With the goal of ensuring future stability, the program challenges participating students to do everything from provide access to clean water to reverse engineer the human brain.

“It’s the most demanding program we have, so it’s clear that women can do the work,” Katsouleas said. “It’s not the material, but the framing of the material that’s causing the gap.”

He said women will be attracted to engineering only once they recognize that it’s about more than labs and coding.

“The appeal of engineering lies in large part in its ability to help people,” Katsouleas said. “It can be used to solve a number of problems, like how to provide clean water to a billion people.”

Walker said that this problem-solving aspect is what she loves most about engineering, explaining that she has always thought of it as more than just fixing a computer.

“If you can change the way people look at engineering— if you can make them realize that it has real-world implications and isn’t just about someone sitting in a dark lab with a calculator — then you can absolutely increase interest,” she said.

In an earlier version of this article, Rebecca Simmons was referred to as Connie Simmons. The Chronicle regrets the error.


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