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Few women enrolled in engineering

JACOB KONST/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Chemical and environmental engineering professor Kim Ogden, center, is surrounded by her student staff of chemical engineering majors, senior Elizabeth Swanson, junior Liese Beenken and sophomore Rosemary Galhotra, in the Electrical and Computer Engineering building. Ogden is the only female professor in the chemical and environmental engineering department.
By Jessica Lee
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, May 4, 2004
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For an April Fools' Day joke, the Arizona Daily Wildcat ran an Issue of the Week prank claiming that engineering at the UA was "a man only major."

The prank hit a soft spot in the College of Engineering & Mines.

The college houses the fewest undergraduate women of any UA college, and engineering officials say they are working hard to attract women into a field that traditionally has a difficult time recruiting and retaining female students.

"Articles like that do more damage to what we are trying to do than just about anything you can imagine," said Tom Peterson, dean of the college. "We know we have a long way to go in establishing gender equity. We're not ignoring it. We are working really hard to try to solve it."

Despite the negative attention the college receives because its undergraduate class is only 18.3 percent women, progress is being made.

In the department of chemical and environmental engineering, 45.3 percent of the undergraduates are women.

The ChEE department exemplifies the underlying trend: Women enter science fields based on chemistry and biology.

"Women in junior high and high school have more interest and aptitude for chemistry and biology than working on their car," Peterson said. "In some ways, it is that skill set and interest that · sort of ends up causing boys to go into mechanical engineering and electrical engineering."

Several departments in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Science that focus on chemistry and biology are more than 50 percent female.

While the numbers provide evidence of women being attracted to chemistry- and biology-based fields, the reasoning isn't so obvious. Some, like Peterson, believe women are interested in fields in which they believe they can make a difference.

"Women in engineering are more interested in those fields they feel they can make a societal difference," Peterson said.

Peterson said it is fields like chemical and environmental engineering that give women an opportunity to make a difference. Issues such as sustainability, energy conservation, sewage treatment and pollution reduction are just some problems that ChEE students can tackle.

Others say the attraction women generally have toward chemistry and biology revolves around a fear of math.

Girls who are talented at math at an early age often shy away from math in junior high because it is "not cool" for girls to be smart in math, said Bruce Johnson, a teaching and teacher education assistant professor. By high school, "most girls don't picture themselves being engineers or physicists."

Parents need to be re-educated, said Ray Umashankar, director of minority engineering programs in the College of Engineering & Mines.

"Perception continues that engineering and technology careers are really for men," Umashankar said. "We need to make efforts to educate parents. They say, ĪThis is not for you, this is only for boys.'"

In the electrical and computer engineering field, a math-intensive department, only 11.8 percent of the undergraduates are female.

"Women see and feel that chemical and mechanical engineering, more than electrical engineering, can be used to help people," said Hal Tharp, associate department head of electrical and computer engineering.

But not all women mind the male-dominated classes in certain majors.

Tiffany Miller, a mechanical engineering junior, said she is attracted to her program because of the low number of women.

"I actually like the small ratios of females," said Miller, who is the president of the UA student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. "Most of my friends are guys, and overall I think they are easier to get along with."

Recruiting and retaining

Math anxiety is only part of the problem. Peterson said low enrollment is also due to the fact that women are not encouraged to pursue science and math in junior high and high school.

"It is an issue we often refer to as a pipeline issue," he said. "You can't just say the answer is go out and try to convince second semester women high school seniors that they should come into engineering. You have to start much, much sooner."

In order to tackle the "pipeline issue," the college is involved in a number of recruiting measures aimed at inspiring girls to be interested in engineering.


More than 200 middle and high school girls flooded the UA campus in March to participate in the Expanding Your Horizons Conference sponsored by Women in Science and Engineering.

The WISE program has helped motivate young women to pursue an education in science, engineering, mathematics and technology. In the 22nd annual conference, the young women listened to 40 female panelists, many from the UA, and participated in some of the 15 workshops.

"Some people felt that these nontraditional careers for women are too above them, and too beyond their reach. We are telling them no, you can enjoy science and math," said Pat Hnilo, WISE senior program coordinator.

Other educational programs such as Girls in the System, an effort between the UA and the Sahuaro Girl Scout Council to bring science, technology, engineering and mathematics to young girls, hope to touch young girls' lives.

In order to retain the women who are recruited, engineering women say female role models are important.

"I think that some science and math fields are still dominated by men, though that is changing," Johnson said. "And there are still a lack of enough role models for girls who are growing up in those fields."

The aerospace and mechanical engineering undergraduate class is 11.9 percent female. The department has no tenure-track female professors.

In ECE, an effort has been made to actively recruit women faculty members, Tharp said. ECE now has five female faculty members.

"We are now recruiting more female faculty to help retain female students," Tharp said.

As the only tenure-track female ChEE professor, Kim Ogden frequently receives visits from students who want a female perspective on a career in engineering.

"I've heard that some students come to me because they want to meet the female professor and seek me out personally," Ogden said. "They have many questions about balancing a family and a career that I do my best to answer."

Ogden said she believes one reason her department has so many women in it is because they are beginning to feel more comfortable in the department.

"Now that we have the women, it makes others feel more comfortable," she said. "They don't enter classes that are all males. Now it is about 40-50 percent in each class."

Peterson said he recognizes the importance of having female instructors.

"We have had and continue to have outstanding female faculty who are great role models who are faculty that are not one-dimensional," Peterson said. "They have families, they are raising children and they have a life."

Deanna King, a ChEE senior who wants to become a chemical engineering professor, said women like Ogden are important because they inspire students.

"If strong women with large accomplishments show to younger students that it is possible, hopefully it will plant a seed of hope in these students to go for it," she said.

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