CHAPTER 8: ATTRACTING WOMEN UNDERGRADUATES
First we must try to understand, in a very objective way, the place which women hold in the engineering profession and their future within it. The second, and more complex task is that we must understand the difficulties which human beings have in living together as men and women (Louis Cloutier, Dean of Science and Engineering, Universit6 Laval, CCWE Conference).
The number of women students in undergraduate engineering programs has been increasing--but slowly. From 1974 to 1990, the percentage of women in undergraduate engineering programs increased from 2.9 percent to 14 percent, averaging an increase of less than one percent per year (Table 6). The participation of women in undergraduate engineering programs varies by university (Table 7) and by discipline (Table 8).
Recent initiatives to attract women into undergraduate engineering programs appear to be working: between September 1990 and September 1991, some universities experienced dramatic increases in first-year enrollments (Table 9). In the fall of 1991, women represented over 17 percent of first-year engineering students in Canada.
The reasons for the under-representation of women in engineering are many and complex (Chapters 1 through 6), and include sexual stereotyping and societal attitudes that discourage girls and young women from pursuing mathematics, science and nontraditional professions. Other contributing factors include lack of information about what engineers do, the perception that engineering is a profession only for men, and few women role models.
If we are to sustain the improvement in the number of women entering engineering, we need to look beyond the point of recruitment and ask: what will be their experience? Because those are the questions that women themselves ask (Kate Viscardi, Women in Engineering Centre, Southbank Polytechnique, CCWE Conference).
School visit programs
Regular and frequent visits to schools are an effective way to provide information about engineering careers. If they have not already done so, faculties of engineering should establish school visit programs to elementary and secondary schools. Although it will be several years before the impact of visits to elementary schools is reflected in enrollments in engineering, contact with elementary school girls is vital. One study of the participation rates of girls in technological subjects such as engineering found gender stereotypes become a significant factor as early as age nine and are entrenched by age 13 (McDill and Johnston, 1991).
Presenters in school visit programs should be trained to give gender-sensitive presentations and to relate engineering concepts to everyday life. All presentations should dispel myths that engineering is for men and that exceptionally high grades are needed to succeed in engineering programs.
Different messages need to be given at different levels. Elementary school children need to discover that science and mathematics are fun by participating in hands-on activities and observing demonstrations. Junior high school students need to be convinced to continue in mathematics and science; without them, careers in engineering are eliminated. Senior high school students need to be made aware of the variety of challenging jobs offered in engineering and of the scholarships available.
More girls and young women will be attracted to engineering if engineers are portrayed as professionals who develop technological solutions that improve the quality of life. It has been found that women tend to prefer courses of study and careers that involve helping others. Many girls with abilities in science select the life sciences in university.
The reason behind such choices seems to be a well-established interest in more 'nurturing' types of subjects, leading towards medicine or any research to help in disease control or human/animal care. We face the fact that engineering does not fall in their perception of fields that provide a net 'human' improvement and that appeal to the female students for their implicit social content (Micaela Serra, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Engineering, University of Victoria, West Coast Forum).
The image of engineering as a helping profession could be promoted by emphasizing multidisciplinary areas such as environmental, biomedical and safety engineering. Presenters can bring engineering to life by performing simple experiments and demonstrating examples of technologies developed by engineers. Promotional literature and audio-visual aids should also be designed to appeal to both male and female students.
Some school visit programs offer sessions for girls only. The rationale is that female students feel more comfortable about asking questions if boys are not present; other programs feature engineers, who just happen to be women, speaking to both boys and girls.
Boys need to see that an engineer can be a female just as much as girls do; both genders need to see the role model, but for different reasons (Nigel Shrive, P.Eng., Associate Dean, Faculty of Engineering, University of Calgary, CCWE Conference).
Several engineering faculties have hired student liaison or recruitment officers to co-ordinate school visit programs. Women engineering graduates hired for these positions will provide girls and young women with living proof that women are engineers.
Faculties of engineering should continue to support and enhance extracurricular programs to stimulate the interests of girls and young women in science, mathematics, technology and engineering (Chapter 6 and Appendix C). For example, faculties could organize tours or luncheons and seminars for elementary and secondary school children.
Presenters in the schools
The participation of engineering students can increase the effectiveness of school presentations. Junior high and high school students may relate more easily to engineering students because they are closer in age. The relationship will be even stronger if the engineering students are former students of the schools they visit. University students can speak about the reasons they chose engineering, the necessary credits, the life of a student, and the types of jobs open to engineering graduates. Students from different disciplines and from co-op and mainstream programs can illustrate the variety of engineering programs and disciplines.
Some teams of students and faculty who visit schools include men and women. The participation of female students and professional engineers will reinforce the message that women belong in engineering. Female students can speak about their university experiences, and professional engineers about their careers and about sharing childcare and household responsibilities with their partners.
Teachers and guidance counselors should be invited to attend engineering career presentations; since they are in daily contact with elementary and secondary students, they are able to reinforce the message that engineering is for women and men.
Faculties of engineering should recognize individuals who participate in school visits, especially faculty who sacrifice time from their teaching and research. Engineering students could be recognized by an annual dinner or a letter of reference for prospective employers working engineers by letters of appreciation to their employers.
Informing teachers and parents
If they are not already doing so, faculties and schools of engineering should offer information sessions on engineering programs and careers to parents, guidance counselors and elementary and secondary school teachers. Workshops and sessions should include material on gender-inclusive issues. Representatives of faculties of engineering could participate in workshops and professional development sessions for teachers and at career days for students. Seminars for guidance counselors could include tours of engineering schools and opportunities to discuss engineering careers with students, faculty and employers. Open houses for high school students could include parents whose attitudes will have an effect on children's decisions. We also suggest that faculties of engineering make university personnel, especially high school liaison and recruitment officers, aware of the need to promote engineering for women and men.
Programs for women only
Several faculties of engineering and other organizations have launched initiatives specifically designed to attract and retain women in engineering programs. Many attraction and retention programs focus only on women students, and some scholarships are awarded only to women or equally to men and women. At public forums and in private letters, the CCWE heard concerns about such initiatives.
Any intervention... should be carefully planned and implemented. Some initiatives that have been introduced ...have generated negative reactions. Many of our female students do not agree with such preferential treatment, even as short-term agents. It is important that such initiatives be designed and implemented in such a way as not to create (or at least to minimize) any 'backlash' that could interfere with the sense of 'community' that exists within engineering (Garry Wacker, P. Eng., University of Saskatchewan, and Art Opseth, P.Eng., University of Regina, Prairie Region Forum).
It is of utmost importance that deans and faculty clearly explain the reasons behind such initiatives and emphasize that they are temporary measures designed to address a temporary problem. Women students must not feel that they are being given special treatment and that they are receiving scholarships and awards only because they are female.
It is important that male [students] don't see this move to an equitable position as an act of revenge. Instead of feeling threatened, males should see this as a way to achieve a fair balance
Mature and Other Non-traditional Students
One roadblock I encountered in taking engineering was not my sex, but my age. One university would not accept my husband and me because of our six-year absence from school. They felt that our age would prevent successful competition against students right out of high school. Fortunately, this was only one university.
A mature learner or non-traditional student is one who enters engineering from a route other than directly from secondary school, with or without the conventional prerequisites: at least two mathematics and two science courses in the final year of high school. It is difficult to determine how many engineering students fall into this category, although a 1991 survey of engineering undergraduates at the University of Ottawa found that 25 percent of the women students and 31 percent of men undergraduates were over 23 years of age (Baignée, CCWE Conference).
At the present time, it is very difficult and in some cases impossible to pursue engineering and other science programs on a part-time basis or to enter these fields after several years' absence from the formal education system. The proportion of part-time and mature students who are women is substantial. Their talents are not being well utilized if only a limited range of post-secondary programs are accessible to them (Patricia Gentry, Council of Ontario Universities, Ontario Public Forum).
Faculties of engineering should offer introductory, transitional, and/or qualifying courses to mature and other non-traditional students. They should also initiate processes to allow for the transfer of credits from other institutions such as community colleges. The CCWE recognizes the difficulties transfer students encounter, especially those transferring from community college to university. As many graduates of CEGEPS and community colleges pursue university studies, the role of these institutions in preparing young people for professional careers should not be overlooked.
Engineering studies should be offered on a part-time basis, with scholarships and bursaries for part-time students and awards created for individuals returning to university. The availability of bursaries and awards and the opportunity to study part-time may encourage students, particularly women, to consider engineering studies.
Effectiveness of programs
Faculties of engineering should investigate and monitor the success of recruitment programs. One way might be to survey all first-year students about why they chose engineering and graduating high school students about why they are or are not considering engineering. Feedback from surveys and interviews will help teachers, guidance counselors and school administrators, as well as faculties of engineering, determine the effectiveness of recruitment programs.
9. The CCWE recommends that faculties and schools of engineering develop programs to attract women into undergraduate engineering programs to increase the pool of well-qualified, talented engineers.
Schedule for success:
10. The CCWE recommends that faculties of engineering encourage mature and other nontraditional students to enter engineering programs.
Schedule for success: