Women in Engineering: Thoughts on Progress

The May 2015 issue of the ASEE Connections reports that “The percentage of full-time undergraduate female engineering students graduating with a degree in engineering has declined in most disciplines during the past decade“ ("DataBytes").   Of 22 engineering disciplines, only general engineering, civil/environmental engineering and environmental engineering show that the percentage of women graduates increased in the past decade, from 2005 to 2014.  The overall percentage of full-time undergraduate women engineering students graduating in any engineering discipline in 2014 is the same as it was in 2005, recovering from a decrease after 2005. ("Engineering By the Numbers", ASEE, 2013) This post discusses the published statistics and then highlights a new research report by AAUW on strategies for increasing the number of women in engineering .    

I thought it would be interesting to explore the ASEE data with a radar chart, which is often used in quality improvement efforts. It is typical to see a radar chart in educational presentations, presenting progress on educational process and learning outcomes.  

In this case, the percent of women graduates (full-time undergraduates) were ranked by engineering disciplines, using the 2014 percentage (blue line) and plotted on a radar chart. Correspondingly, the 2005 percentages (red line) were added as a separate line.  Microsoft Excel has a template for this chart.

Figure 1: Radar Chart showing Percentages of Women Graduates by Engineering Discipline

Radar Chart

 For comparison, Figure 2 shows the more traditional comparative bar chart.

 Figure 2: Bar Chart Showing Percentage of Women Graduates by Engineering Discipline

Bar Chart

Both charts show:

  •          There is a very wide range in the percentage of women graduates from 46% in environmental engineering (excellent) to only 11% for computer engineering.  In the case of environmental engineering, almost 50% of the graduates are women, a desirable goal for increased participation of women in the engineering workforce.  It is important to recognize that although the overall percent of women graduates in engineering is only 20%, some engineering disciplines have much higher enrollment and graduation by women students.
  •          The percentage of women graduates has decreased since 2005 in many disciplines, instead of increasing.  

 Radar Chart’s Advantages

The radar chart is more visually pleasing and easier to “see” at a glance, the following patterns:

  •          The variation between the largest percent of 46% and the smallest percent of 11%  among the 22 disciplines.
  •          In almost all disciplines, the percentage of women graduates has decreased.  Only three disciplines (14%) show an increase (Environmental, General Engineering and Civil/Environmental). 
  •          Among the 10 disciplines with the 2014 percent less or equal to 20%, all showed a decrease from 2005, suggesting that women students may not have adequate support and an inclusive environment within the program, especially for those programs that have a small number of women students. 
  •          Remarkably, the top three ranked disciplines, Environmental (46%), Biomedical (40%), and Biological/ Agricultural (34%) have very consistent percentages over time.  These engineering disciplines have a high percent of biological sciences and healthcare content, and women students tend to show a strong interest and pursue majors in the biological sciences, so a strong connection between these engineering disciplines and the related sciences already exists.  These disciplines are also more recently established and smaller engineering programs,  and may be more innovative towards attracting women students.
  •          On the other hand, computer engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science (in an engineering program) consistently show low percentage of women graduates, and by inference, low women student participation.  These programs are the larger and generally older programs.    

The statistics tell us a story of little progress; in the past decade, U.S. engineering colleges  have not made progress in increasing the percent of women graduates in engineering.   In the past 10 years, with significant support from NSF, NAE  and other programs,  and pressure from industry, both research and K-12 outreach efforts have significantly increased.  The K-12 outreach efforts are significant for increasing the number of women students in the freshman engineering class, which will lead to higher percentages of women in the graduating class.  However, the K-12 outreach efforts, even if very successful, may not show up in a college graduation statistic for several  years due to the education cycle of 7 years in middle and high schools, and 4-6 years in engineering college.  With some engineering colleges significantly increasing the percent of women students in their freshman classes, there is hope that in the next 4 years, we will see higher percentages in graduation statistics.   This effort can be helped with a reassessment by engineering faculty and administrators of effective college efforts for  K-12 outreach activities, student recruitment,  classroom engagement, and college-support activities.  Improvement is achieved through a collective effort by each engineering college. 

The need is critical for more engineering graduates in the engineering workforce.  See my Quality Progress article, “Perspectives: Action Required” for background information.   This need will only be met if more women enroll in engineering programs, persist to graduation, and join the engineering workforce. 

Recommendations from AAUW

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) recently published a new report that frames the issues related to the generally low percentage of women in engineering and computing. This report will provide valuable information for a reassessment.  If you work with college engineering  students, are involved with K-12 engineering and computing outreach, or involved with recruitment and workforce development  in engineering or technology -intensive companies, you will want to read  Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing.   

In their report, the AAUW researchers highlight four areas of action in framing their recommendations:

  •          Combating stereotypes and gender biases
  •          Emphasizing social relevance
  •          Cultivating a sense of belonging
  •          Changing the environment

As a brief overview,  the following are some of the recommendations made by  AAUW for engineering colleges:         

  •          “Expand examples beyond those that involve stereotypically male applications such as cars or rockets." 
  •           Discuss the social impact of engineering. Discuss engineering in terms of social issues and bring in “real-world” problems.
  •          Include project-based learning or service-learning in classroom projects
  •          To cultivate a sense of belonging, develop a supportive environment for women students. Offer support networks for women students in engineering. 
  •          “ Introduce students to experiences in the field early in undergraduate coursework to allow students to see the differences between textbook problems and the creativity and critical thinking necessary for actual engineering problem solving”·             
  •          Provide opportunities for undergraduate research after the first year of college.

Social Impact of Engineering

The actions discussed in the AAUW report are worth considering and implementing.  Especially for women students, research shows it is important to discuss how engineering can help solve societal problems.  It is important to communicate the “bigger” picture of engineering and how it connects to solving problems in the local and global community. 

One only needs to look at the radar chart (Figure 1) again.  Which engineering disciplines have the highest percentages? These are the same disciplines that women students often see as being socially relevant and important. The top three are: Environmental, Biomedical and Biological/ Agricultural.  Clearly, improving the environment, addressing global warming, the melting of the glaciers, and the extreme weather are societal issues.  Improving the environment will “make a difference”.  Women students also often see biomedical and biological engineering as socially relevant, where advances in medicine and patient care will continue to be made.

Now think about computer engineering, electrical engineering and aerospace engineering.  Can we connect with its impact on solving societal issues?  Of course.  As an example, the smartphone has made life easier for the world through computer engineering research. Likewise, for exploration of many parts of the world, radar and GPS systems have made a difference in helping society.  But computer, mechanical and electrical engineering are not perceived in the same way as solving societal problems. Why? I would like to suggest these engineering fields are contributing as much to solving societal problems as environmental engineering, but more effort is needed in communicating about how these fields are helping society.  This combined with a stronger student-focused culture that embraces a sense of all students being welcome and learning together, and of enjoying engineering experiences, will contribute to more women participating in traditional male-dominated engineering programs. 

Industry’s Involvement

It is also important to enable students to experience and enjoy internships and other experiences in their field to fully understand their future careers and bring those experiences back to their academic studies. Ideally, internships should begin between the freshman and sophomore years so students can more fully appreciate an engineering career.   Internships also help students to plan their career paths. 

Summary and Conclusion

The radar chart can be very concise and effective in showing improvement over time.  Consider using it for your next presentation. Figure 1 shows the improvement in the percent of women students graduating from engineering.  The results are not encouraging by themselves; however it takes time for the current efforts to show up in the national statistics, since much of the K-12 engineering outreach effort has ramped up in the past several years.  The AAUW report, Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing provides a summary of recent research and recommendations for both universities and employers to implement.  It is important to relate engineering to solving society’s problems, to create an engineering college culture where women students have a strong network, and to provide all students with opportunities such as internships to experience engineering in the field.  In addition, the ideas discussed in the AAUW report will create a more student-focused educational culture that will benefit all students.

This summer would be an appropriate time for engineering colleges to reassess the progress they have made in increasing the percent of women graduates and develop improved processes for the coming academic year.  

  Cindy Veenstra, PhD, ASQ Fellow  (email: cindy@veenstraconsulting.com)