Why so few female engineers?
Only a handful of women major in engineering each year
Published: Thursday, January 18, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 15:01
In high school, Danielle Polk used to tell people she was thinking about majoring in theatre. Now, she is a senior computer engineering major at Santa Clara.
"I was too embarrassed to tell people that I was actually interested in computers," Polk said. "I felt like I wasn't good enough."
Polk took night courses at a community college while still in high school, something she now says was based on her insecurities, and earned two technical certifications. By the time she got to Santa Clara, she already had four years of programming experience.
"When I got here, I had to tell myself 'Okay, calm down, you're on a level playing field now, half the people here have never had any experience,' " Polk said.
"I think I had a good advantage when I came here, and from there on, I got nothing but positive feedback."
In an industry where women are represented by a mere 11 percent, according to the National Science Foundation, Polk's story proves that she may not be the only female feeling discouraged about entering the male-dominated field of engineering.
"It's a lot better now than it was in the '70s," said Katie Wilson, an electrical engineering professor. "But I've personally felt like I've always had to prove myself. It's mostly men in the tech world."
Wilson is one of four female professors in the electrical engineering department in the School of Engineering, which has ten professors total. Such a percentage looks good compared to her previous position at Purdue University, where female electrical engineering professors counted for only four of 75 professors in the department.
While the School of Engineering at Santa Clara boasts a female faculty percentage of three times the national average, and is now No. 4 in the country for such a statistic, it would seem logical that female students would also be higher in number.
Though women compose 25 percent of engineering students, Santa Clara is also a smaller school with only about 5,000 students. When translated into the number of student engineers, this 25 percent means only three female computer engineers in the class of 2007, two female mechanical engineers in the class of 2008 and two female computer engineers in the class of 2009.
"I took four classes last spring," said Nora Hendrickson, a junior mechanical engineer. "I was the only girl in three of them."
Though female engineering students at Santa Clara don't report any negative discrimination at the collegiate level, they recognize that younger girls in middle school and high school may be discouraged from taking the engineering route.
"I never knew that girls weren't supposed to be good at math and science until later in life," said Robin Bell, a 2005 Santa Clara graduate who is currently studying mechanical engineering at Stanford University. "In high school, it felt like girls were either smart or popular. You couldn't be both."
Bell's conclusions from her own experience are well-founded.
According to the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Technology, girls in sixth and seventh grade rate being popular and well-liked as more important than being perceived as competent or independent.
Polk, who is also the president of the Santa Clara chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, claims that young girls' interest in math and science peaks at an early age and then declines. In fact, the percentage of girls who believe that anyone can do well in math if they try declines from 90 percent to 71 percent to 46 percent, from grades four, to eight, to 12, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"The biggest problem is how these girls develop in middle school and high school," Polk said. "They need famous, cool female role models to look up to, and who do they have right now? Martha Stewart and Madonna. They don't have any faces they can put with engineering or science."
It's precisely this mentality that spurred the One Step Ahead program within SWE, an outreach program that brings local high school girls onto campus six times throughout the winter quarter to experience hands-on projects in the different engineering disciplines.
According to its creators, One Step Ahead is geared toward encouraging girls in math and science and creating a support system for them.
"It gives these girls a safe haven to be smart, do fun projects, and share their passion with each other," said Hendrickson, SWE's vice president. "They get to say 'I did all these things that college girls do in their engineering classes.' "
Karen Chapski, a sophomore computer engineer, participated in the program as a high school senior.
"I went to an all-girls high school, and when I told my counselor I wanted to pursue engineering, she basically laughed and suggested I do something else," Chapski said. "It was really cool to come to the campus and see what features Santa Clara had."
Tim Healy, an electrical engineering professor, argued that while an outreach program is a great way to recruit female engineers, targeting high schools might be too late to reach some students.
"I think middle school is a more important time to reach these girls," Healy said.
For female engineering students, a male majority can lead to better performance and some healthy competition. Especially at the collegiate level, when sexist discouragement no longer seems to be a problem, females take the opportunity to prove their competence in the field.
"If anything, being a girl has made me work harder," Bell said. "I want to prove that there's no difference, and if there is, to show I'm better than them."
Hendrickson said, "Sometimes I feel like the guys in my classes are trying to prove themselves to me. They understand that I'm just as smart as they are."
Though Santa Clara students appear to be working to close the gender gap in engineering, the industry has yet to accomplish such a feat. According to the National Science Foundation, women earn less than 25 percent of doctoral degrees in computer science and mathematics and less than 20 percent of doctoral degrees in engineering.