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Role Models Needed PUBLIC ACCESS

Programs, Some Formal and Others in the Field, Seek to Convince More Women to Follow the Calling of Technology.

[+] Author Notes

Barbara Wolcott, a frequent contributor to Mechanical Engineering, is a freelance writer based ill Sail Luis Obispo, Calif.

Mechanical Engineering 123(04), 46-51 (Apr 01, 2001) (6 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2001-APR-1

The US Bureau of Lab or Statistics reports that in 1999, women made up 24.5 percent of doctors compared with 6.1 percent in 1950. The Lore-El Center at Stevens sponsors programs designed to encourage girls to enjoy working with technology. The cornerstone of Lore-El’s pre-college program is a two-week summer resident session for high school students in engineering. The program also works to examine innovative ways of teaching physics and dispelling stereotypes associated with engineering. The Lore-El Center works to show students what engineers do and the contributions they make in society, where much of everything is generated by engineers, or improved by them to make a better product. Experts are designing a series of games and experiments with Tufts University to be tested at schools across the country, so that teachers and principals who have no experience in engineering can take the modules and implement them in their classrooms.

Until the last decade, math and science were not generally encouraged for girls in American junior and senior high schools. The Mattel Corp. underscored that fact when it brought out a talking Barbie doll. Tug on a pull-string and get the message: "Math is hard!"

A hue and cry from the resistors of stereotypes convinced Mattel to withdraw that particular model from store shelves to replace the voice chip, but reaction to the marketing faux pas did little to promote more interest in necessary courses for budding engineers. Enlightened counselors, who recognized that girls could have an aptitude for math and science, pointed to narrow choices: get a PhD. to teach or go into medicine.

The U.S. Bureau of Lab or Statistics reports that in 1999, women made up 24.5 percent of doctors compared with 6.1 percent in 1950. In that same period, women went from 6.1 percent of engineers in 1950 to 10.6 percent in 1999. With the same basic educational requirements for both careers and federal laws, guidelines, and incentives in place to hire more women in previously male careers, women are not entering the field of engineering as they are the practice of medicine.

The main hurdles in getting women to study engineering occur long before they reach college, and those who make it that far often have had a role model engineer like a father, brother, or close family acquaintance to introduce them to the field. Once they get to college, their retention is not significantly different from that of male engineering students

Susan Metz, executive director of the Lore-El Center for Women in Engineering and Science at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., said, "The word 'engineering' never makes it into much of the K-12 curriculum." Even with a new push for math and science education across the country, the field of engineering goes unmentioned, unnoticed, and unexplored among educators, students, the media, and the American public.

Laura Bottomley decided to study engineering when she was in fifth grade. "My dad was an electrical engineer so I had a clue about it, but the reason I decided to do it was because I wanted to be an astronaut," she said. Bottomley looked around for a degree where she could do that, reasoning that if she didn't get into space, she could still find a job. "That's what got me in it in the first place, but what kept me in was how much fun it is;' she said.

Currently the director of Women in Engineering and Outreach programs at North Carolina State University at Raleigh, Bottomley helped design a program for young girls, especially those without engineering role models. "We go into schools at the K-12 level with hands-on experiments and demos-things they can do in a lot of basic science-and I connect them all to engineering."

Bottomley has been doing this outreach for three years and believes that the critical time for girls is earlier than is popularly believed. Bottomley said, "From my experience, it's around fourth or fifth grade when girls are starting to decide whether they are good at math and science."

Since shortly after the 1972 federal mandate for equity in the workplace, Stevens has had a variety of pre-college programs directed toward girls in grades 6 through 12.

The Lore-El Center at Stevens sponsors programs designed to encourage girls to enjoy working with technology.

Grahic Jump LocationThe Lore-El Center at Stevens sponsors programs designed to encourage girls to enjoy working with technology.

The programs all run through the school's Lore-El Center.

The center's director, Kathleen Bott, said, " In the early grades, we focus on motivating them to keep a full curriculum of mathematics courses as a basis to a career in engineering or science, and our seminars in the high school program introduce them to career options in engineering and science."

The cornerstone of Lore-El's pre-college program is a two-week summer resident session for high school students in engineering. "We do a follow up survey with them," said Bott. "Since 1978, we have found that 94 percent of the students who go through our summer program major in engineering or science in college. The numbers have stayed there, which is pretty remarkable."

Bott said the program also works to examine new ways of teaching physics and dispelling stereotypes associated with engineering. "When a Harvard study showed that freshman physics classes were really a turnoff and weeded out some students because of it," said Bott, "a lot of schools took a look at their curriculum and rectified the course to make it more fun."

She added that when girls in middle school were asked to draw an engineer they would typically draw a male with nerdy glasses and the crazy scientist look. "The image is still there," Bott said, "and they only drew guys. In this age of information, that is extraordinary."

The Lore-El Center works to show students what engineers do and the contributions they make in society, where much of everything is generated by engineers, or improved by them to make a better product.

Bott said a common thread for women is that if a male student is good in math or science or even average at it, a teacher will recommend engineering. The program's research shows that teachers don't see it as a field for women. Girls who excel in math and science are rarely encouraged to go into engineering.

"To me it's just astonishing in this day and age that people would encourage girls to only go into teaching and medicine when engineering offers a lot of the flexibility they want to balance work and family that teaching and medicine do not," Bott said. "They also have little advice that engineering is such a good foundation from which to move into other fields, like patent law or even medical school. It serves well for the long haul and there are not many other degrees that can match that."

"We really need to correct the image of engineers at a much earlier age in schools."

Metz, the executive director who is also the current president of Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network, is designing a series of games and experiments with Tufts University to be tested at schools across the country, so that teachers and principals who have no experience in engineering can take the modules and implement them in their classrooms.

"We really need to correct the image of engineers at a much earlier age in schools," said Metz. "This year we are targeting community college students because there are now more women than men in community colleges. Many of them are re turning to study for another degree, and the average age of student bodies at these schools is 29, including the 17- and 18-year-olds . It 's an exciting place to target women getting into technology."

Girls who go to college to study engineering face additional impediments, and many schools work hard to keep them in the program. Some use MentorNet, in which engineers working in industry are paired up with students online. MentorNet has a Web site (www.mentornet.net) and is not limited to women. Those who participate agree that it is an excellent resource, especially to keep students in engineering.

MentorNet's founder, Carol Muller, said, "We tailor our coaching and mentoring for the level of student from the community college to university, college, and grad students. Freshmen and sop homo res want to know more about which courses to take, and seniors want to address job issues. Many students are eager to know about a good work/family balance and how industry supports this issue with policy."

Kate Gleason, the first woman to join ASME, left college to return to the family machine-tool business

Grahic Jump LocationKate Gleason, the first woman to join ASME, left college to return to the family machine-tool business

Muller pushed the idea starting in the early 1990s, when e-mail became ubiquitous, especially with students and instructors. "I was at Dartmouth;' she said, "and had seen the powerful influence of some fairly brief conversations with people working in industry on students and their perspective." Muller worked to spread that influence more deliberately, with out setting up in-person meetings.

"We tried electronic mentoring when we got a grant from AT&T," she said. "We said from the beginning that if it was successful on one campus, it ought to be done nationally. With larger pools of mentors and students we could make better matches."

Halfway through the successful two-year trial of the program, Muller n1.oved to develop the program nationwide. It began with a grant from the Sloan Foundation funded through Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network

WEPAN, which bills itself on its Web site as "the incubator of MentorNet," has 500 members from schools, industry, and nonprofit organizations. It has centers at Purdue University, the University of Michigan, Stevens Tech, and the University of Washington. Among its aims are to provide educational and technical assistance to erase gender bias and, as its name implies, to advocate for women to become contributing members of the engineering professions.

MentorNet now serves 2,000 students from 70 campuses and is finding that, for an easy access like e-mail, there is a big payoff for the students involved. In matching students and mentors, the program tries to match pairs as closely as possible according to their fields of study and career histories. It also tries to match alums from the same school.

That kind of matching was very important to mentor Raj Apte at Xerox Corp. when his student charge at Berkeley found herself in a very difficult financial situation. The financial paperwork for her scholarship was unexpectedly held up. Shortly before the end of the semester, she received a bill for tuition along with a statement that she would be suspended if it weren't paid.

"It so disturbed her concentration just before finals that she ended up having a really bad semester," Apte said. "My first job was to try to get her back to the books." Apte then called the chairman of her department to get the financial situation taken care of and to assure that she got the message it was being done. "The chairman had been a professor of mine 10 years before," Apte said, "and I had contacts there."

Jennifer Kuz of Genentech is both an active mentor and a former mentee in another program, the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center program in San Francisco. "I had an opportunity to intern in high school at Saturn Co. with a woman engineer there," Kuz said. Having had that helpful background herself, Kuz was eager to help a college student understand the practicalities of a job and how the courses of study apply in the workplace.

Most authorities, including members of the family, attribute this planing machine to Kate Gleason's father; Henry Ford was convinced Kate was behind it.

Grahic Jump LocationMost authorities, including members of the family, attribute this planing machine to Kate Gleason's father; Henry Ford was convinced Kate was behind it.

When Kuz was in school studying biology, the only direction she was advised to go was toward a Ph.D. for research or for an M.D. "Now I know there are so many other options, especially with the merging of biotechnology and information technology," she said.

It helps to have leadership toward engineering, but a self-starter, Angela Juran, a student at the University of California, San Diego, found her path to engineering mostly unmarked.

"When I was applying for a scholarship, I asked the people interviewing me about their careers," she recalled. "They were architects and engineers, and I liked what I heard. I think one of the more interesting parts of being in the field is seeing people's reactions when you tell them that's your major. I didn't realize that both men and women still raise their eyebrows in total surprise."

Laura Bottomley feels it takes more than communication to get girls interested in math and science. "A young lady at my children's school won the regional science fair two years ago, and now says she does not like science," Bottomley said. "She wants to be a cheerleader even though her mom's a chemical engineer."

Bottomley said she thinks maintaining many girls' interest in math and science requires hard work. " It starts in about fourth grade when they just start thinking about science, then hits another snag in middle school when they are beginning to look at careers and start caring what boys think," she said. "It's like a pipeline for girls with a number of leaky spots."

Despite the multitude of blocks to encouraging girls to enter engineering, the variety of efforts to meet the challenge do work. Student Jennifer Greer said, "As a junior in high school, I attended a presentation at Purdue by the Society of Women Engineers. After that, I was determined to go to Purdue to study engineering. Needless to say, the presentation had a huge effect on my future."

At her first job interview, Fitzroy was asked, "Little girl, what are you doing here?"

There are no national television role models to influence girls toward engineering the way "E.R." or "The Practice" does for medicine and law. Carol Gerich, director of public relations for engineering at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said, "We really need someone in a TV series with a woman engineer who is drop-dead beautiful and gets things done."

Without that kind of powerful prestige, girls will have to find engineering in different ways, like student Rebecca Kohl, who started off as a math major. After her first year, when she found math majors deal more with theory, engineering held a strong attraction for her.

"I liked the physics involved in mechanics from the classes I had already taken," she said. Kohl will be graduating in a year and expects to earn a master's degree in order to be a professional engineer working on hybrid vehicles. Kohl had no engineering influence prior to college, but realizes the value of it. She participates as a mentor in a Women in Engineering program at the local high school.

The first and only woman president of ASME was Nancy Fitzroy, elected in 1986, 116 years after Ellen Swallow Richards was the first woman accepted at MIT and 14 years after historic federal legislation mandated equality in the workplace. Fitzroy was unable to get a job as an engineer when she graduated in 1949.

At her first job interview, Fitzroy was asked, "Little girl, what are you doing here?" The man closed his book, saying he had a daughter about her age and wouldn't want her working in a dirty old factory. The next interviewer asked, "How do I know you're any good? If you're not, I'll be stuck with you."

Fitzroy eventually accepted a job at General Electric as an engineer assistant, where she worked in the project Hermes doing thermodynamics analysis of the liquid oxygen and alcohol tanks of missiles, assisting a man who had been doing it as part of his work for a Ph.D.

"GE finally realized that I was doing the same work," she said, "and that I should be called an engineer." The title didn't end her barriers. "Once when I was up for a raise, my boss was forced to find out how much money my husband was making," she said. "They wouldn't let me make more than my husband. It was the paternalistic tenor of the time-the 1960s-but it was something like 'little girl, it's just not a good idea to make more than your husband.'"

Meeting the Image Head-on

Congress established the commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development (CAWMSET) in 1998. Among its five major objectives is one to change the public image of engineering and science to encourage more women and minorities to enter the field.

Without a concerted effort to meet the marketplace demand for technical expertise, the United States is faced with importing foreign professionals as has been done for the computer industry.

According to separate studies done at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford, female and minority students are deeply affected by small reminders of their public personae. Just listing their race or gender on a test seems to have affected the scores of women and minorities, who scored lower than a control group that did not have to enter this information.

The studies also found that response to stereotyping did not fade with age. It showed that those who had already succeeded in school and scored well otherwise were affected the most in the test, demonstrating that even the most confident students still react to a public's perception of them.

At the University of Waterloo in Ontario, researchers found that commercial stereotyping convinces women and minorities to withdraw from math and sciences because they feel targeted as one of so few in the classes. CAWMSET calls its mission a national imperative because, while college enrollment is rising, the numbers of those in math and sciences is declining.

Late last year, women engineers at Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories along with the Society of Women Engineers, sponsored a one-day CAWMSET meeting through a grant from ExxonMobil Foundation. The diverse group sought to bring together the private and public sectors with those in education to focus aggressive intervention efforts in encouraging a diverse domestic workforce to meet the nation's strategic science, engineering, and technology needs.

The recommendations reach into all areas of science, engineering, and technology, as well as into all levels of education. Given the results of studies on the effect of stereotyping, it will take that kind of national cooperation to bring about any change in the public image of engineers

–Barbara Wolcott

Smith College Tries a Tough Sell

Smith College is making a serious effort to pitch engineering to women. It's a tough sell, but worth it, the college says.

A team representing Smith visited the Bronx High School of Science in New York City in February to drum up interest in engineering among sophomore and junior girls.

The women's college offers a degree in engineering science through the Picker Program in Engineering and Technology, which the trustees greenlighted in February 1999.

Smith's recruiting party to the Bronx included one of those trustees, Gloria Steinem, who is also a graduate of the college.

Smith places engineering as a study among the liberal arts, so students will be required to take courses from the broader curriculum, including the study of a foreign language, to earn the degree.

Steinem told the high school students that the study of engineering, as in the traditional liberal arts, can provide a richer insight into the world. She said that some students might take engineering as a path to an occupation, and others to develop a deeper understanding of things, "for a fuller life."

The chair of Smith's engineering program, Domenico Grasso, a civil and environmental engineer, said that the country needs to actively recruit more women to join the ranks of engineers.

As he expressed it to the Bronx Science students, "We design for all of society. How can we do that if we're all male?" According to Grasso, who is also the Rosemary Bradford Hewlett Professor at Smith, there aren't enough engineers to fill the jobs in the United States, and the HI-B visa program is draining the technological brain trust from countries that desperately need engineers.

Bronx Science has about 2,700 students. The principal, William Stark, estimates that almost half-46 percent-of his students are female. About a dozen young women showed up to hear Steinem and Grasso speak in the library.

The Picker Program, named for a Smith alumna, last fall enrolled its first class, 20 students. The school had spots for 25.-The Editors

Fitzroy is modest about her precedent-setting term as president, pointing out that she is a very good engineer who happens to be a woman. Fitzroy initiated the first ad-hoc committee for women and minorities, now a permanent board of the Society, and worked to develop closer ties with industry.

"About 90 percent of our member engineers are from industry and about 10 percent from academe, but with ASME volunteers, it reverses, with 90 percent academe and only 10 percent industry," she said. "The theme of my presidency dealt with rethinking the link between industry and ASME."

Mentor Raj Apte said he is troubled because there is a system of education steering large numbers of people away from what he considers to be an honorable career. "I think encouraging people to go through engineering is the best thing for any future, and I try to do that in mentoring," Apte said.

Many women who became engineers did so with little encouragement in the face of enormous social, educational, and personal barriers. That drove the stakes so high that it was not enough to be able, but rather made it a necessity to be extraordinary.

Kate Gleason, the first woman admitted to ASME, in 1913, never completed her degree because she was needed at the family machine-tool business in Rochester, N.Y As a leading producer of gear-cutting machinery, the company's invention of a planing machine for beveled gears is generally attributed to her father, but Henry Ford was convinced Kate was the real brains behind it.

On-the-job engineering creativity is the product of an imaginative mind. Margaret Harmon, in her book Ms. Engineer, said that an early mechanical engineer was a New England Shaker woman who invented the circular saw by fastening a flexible steel saw blade to the rim of her spinning wheel.

Gloria Steinem (left), a trustee, went to the Bronx High School of Science as a representative of Smith College and its new engineering program. She was one of the featured speakers

Grahic Jump LocationGloria Steinem (left), a trustee, went to the Bronx High School of Science as a representative of Smith College and its new engineering program. She was one of the featured speakers

In the 21st century, ingenuity is built on past success. Outreach in education and one-on-one Communication are tools to communicate to female students that engineering is an excellent career for them. But, it sure wouldn't hurt to have Julia Roberts play an engineer in a television series

Copyright © 2001 by ASME
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