New MSU initiative attempts to recruit women into engineering fields
About seven years ago, faculty in the MSU College of Engineering began to see an unsettling trend. Despite a wealth of prospective engineering and computer science jobs across the country, there simply weren’t enough women in the field to fill them.
Across majors in engineering, women make up anywhere from 9-40 percent of the undergraduate student population, said Judy Cordes, MSU’s Women in Engineering Program coordinator.
To even the playing field, the college has developed many new programs. Most recently, the answer has come in the form of a partnership with the National Center for Women & Information Technology, or NCWIT, to figure out where the problem lies.
“We’re really focusing on the four majors that are most underrepresented with women as far as representation goes: computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering and chemical engineering,” Cordes said. “We need women to fill those spaces.”
NCWIT has given the initiative, which also includes other MSU professors and deans, a small grant for research. The process involves looking at data for past female students in the four disciplines, tracking application and admission rates, enrollment and retention of students who are recruited.
Cordes said women in the field often add a new point of view to the equation.
“You need that diversity of thought,” she said. “Women bring a different perspective to engineering projects. Females are the bulk of consumers in this country, so bringing in females to design something is going to be more appealing to a bulk of consumers.”
Michelle Slattery, a consultant for NCWIT who is working with MSU on the project, said the issue is one of support for prospective students.
“(Engineering is) seen as a domain that’s not really accessible to women,” Slattery said. “They don’t hear about it, they don’t have a role model, they don’t have any female faculty who speak their language and support them. We have to break that glass ceiling.”
But Daina Briedis, assistant dean of student advancement for the College of Engineering, said low numbers also come from confidence issues among women.
Laura Dillon, a computer science and engineering professor, has begun to attack the problem by creating a course that will serve as a workshop to help build confidence in women.
“Women traditionally have a lower sense of self-efficacy than men,” Briedis said. “Even perfectly capable, bright young women have this doubt of themselves, that’s what (Dillon’s) course is trying to correct.”
Once the women understand what they are capable of bringing to the table, Slattery said the problem will begin to solve itself.
“We know women bring something important in those fields, a creative difference,” Slattery said. “Women represent more than half the population, so their voice is critical.”