The lack of women in science and engineering has long been a sore spot within the U.S. education system, and it’s not getting any better.
From 2004 to 2014, the share of bachelor’s degrees earned by women decreased in engineering; computer sciences; Earth, atmospheric and ocean sciences; physical sciences, mathematics, biological and agricultural sciences; and social sciences and psychology, according to a recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Stereotypes about who is best suited to go into engineering can block girls from following certain academic paths, says Jenna Carpenter, president of the Women in Engineering ProActive Network, which works with a number of school administrators and corporations to help women thrive in engineering.
Some girls may also be unaware of the breadth of career options available within a discipline such as engineering. “Students think of engineering too narrowly,” says Carpenter, who’s also the associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Engineering and Science at Louisiana Tech University.
For those who only associate engineering with working at a paper mill, for example, she has a response.
“How about Victoria’s Secret body splash? Somebody’s gotta make it,” she says. Making makeup and lotion, she says, can definitely be part of the duties of a chemical engineer, for example. But first, someone has to tell students what a chemical engineer is.
Colleges often have clubs, professors and advisers who make students aware of the career options open to certain majors, and these same people often support students as they work through challenging classes. Science and engineering professionals say that students should look to their schools first for support in these disciplines, but campus should not be their last stop – especially if their college offers limited resources for women.
“There’s a benefit in reaching beyond your school either for inspiration, or to network or to really try to understand different career options,” says Noramay Cadena, co-founder and executive director of Latinas in STEM Foundation, which supports Latino girls and women in STEM fields through mentoring, workshops and other resources.
That benefit often means gaining a broader perspective on the industry, says Carpenter. “It helps students see the larger world and the opportunities out there, which they may not know of,” she says.
A number of organizations, websites and books can help girls progress in science and engineering, experts say.
The website for SheHeroes is one of them, says Cadena. “They have video logs of professional women working in STEM,” she says. Women from all backgrounds, including those in engineering and science, discuss how they reached their career goals in the site’s videos. “They’re meant to be inspirational,” says Cadena, who works as an engineer for Boeing and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
College students can also get one-on-one support online. At MentorNet.org, they can get paired with an e-mentor, says Carpenter. The e-mentoring program matches STEM students in higher education with working professionals.
For in-person camaraderie and guidance from professionals, students can also join organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers, the Computing Research Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research or the Association for Computing Machinery Council on Women in Computing, also known as ACM-W, says Valerie Barr. Barr is chair of ACM-W and a professor of computer science at Union College in New York.
ACM-W regularly hosts celebrations of women in computing around the globe, says Barr. These events are much like small conferences, often drawing about 160 students and featuring a career fair, panel discussions and research presentations.
“It gives them an opportunity to network and build community,” she says. The organization also offers scholarships for students who want to attend research conferences.
The organization’s mission is simple, she says. It shouldn’t be a tough sell.
“We’re not asking people to walk on hot coals,” Barr says. “We’re asking them to treat women decently.”
At Louisiana Tech University, Morgan Bollich has – for the most part – been treated decently, she says, even though she’s just one of five or six junior girls who are majoring in chemical engineering. Most of the guys in her classes are supportive of women in engineering, but there has been at least one who’s made a snide comment about physical appearance being the reason she’s gotten certain internship offers, Bollich says.
She encourages incoming college women who are thinking of studying engineering to ignore negative comments from those who doubt them. “Be confident in what you’re able to do,” she says. “If you love what you do, and you’re confident in yourself, then anyone who’s going to hate on you is just jealous.”