Increasing the number of women in engineering is a problem without clear boundary conditions. Although we know that no single solution can help address the challenges women face in navigating their studies and careers, the understanding we’ve gained in recent years can point the way to seeing real change.
Right now, the bar is low. Despite ongoing efforts across academia, government and industry to increase participation, only 14 percent of all engineers and 25 percent of all IT professionals in the United States today are women. This gender imbalance continues, or often worsens, when women complete their education and enter the workforce. A 2011 survey of 5,500 women with engineering degrees in the United States found that 40 percent did not pursue an engineering career after graduation.
In academia, we often discuss the “leaky pipeline” problem, which refers (mostly) to the lack of women in tenured faculty positions. However, this is a small trickle compared to larger leaks that spring up much earlier. For example, although women make up 55 percent of all college graduates, only 18 percent of computer science graduates and 19 percent of engineering graduates are women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Here at the University of California, Davis, we’ve partnered with Chevron and the Koret Foundation to launch AvenueE, a community college transfer program designed to eliminate barriers that hold back women and underrepresented minorities in engineering and computer science. The program serves high potential, low resource students from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree.
Major engineering companies are also stepping up: General Electric aims to have 20,000 women in STEM roles by 2020 and obtain 50–50 representation for all their technical entry-level programs, while IBM recently announced a partnership in new “grade 9-to-14” schools in New York and Chicago that focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.
These initiative are a big step in the right direction, but we cannot rely solely on public-private partnerships. Graduates from our universities fuel the tech sector and help propel the field of engineering forward. So what can academics do to help move the needle on this seemingly intractable problem?
A core component of changing the landscape is ensuring that women in engineering see other women at all levels. My colleagues who have been on the faculty at Davis throughout their careers say this facet was the differentiator.
Jean VanderGheynst, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering and associate dean of research, said when she arrived at University of California, Davis, in 1996, she was welcomed into a group of women faculty in engineering and integrated into her department immediately. “They welcomed me and made sure everyone knew I had arrived. I had support from a group of strong women as I went through the tenure process and beyond. When I talked to my peers at other institutions, they didn’t have the same network. It’s a part of our culture at Davis.”
In 2012, U.C. Davis received a $3.7M National Science Foundation grant, called ADVANCE, which aimed to increase the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers. This grant involved dozens of faculty from all parts of campus—not just STEM fields.
Among many projects, we trained more than 1,000 faculty members about best practices for faculty recruitment and implicit bias. We established central oversight of faculty hiring to ensure diversity and inclusivity, and expected contributions to diversity from all applicants for faculty positions.
Crucially, this commitment continues once a faculty member is hired at U.C. Davis. Contributions to diversity are expected in all merit and promotion review actions, and superior contributions to diversity are recognized and rewarded in review actions. These endeavors remain fully funded after the ADVANCE grant was completed this year, and are institutionalized at the university.
Five years later, U.C. Davis has shown dramatic changes at all levels. These outcomes arise from creating an environment that is welcoming to and supportive of women, coupled with an unwavering dedication to student success and diversity that sets us apart from other large, public institutions of higher education.
This year, Forbes named us the Best Value College for women in STEM fields, based on a metric that includes persistence to graduation and the value of education received. At the faculty level, nearly half of all new faculty hires in STEM fields at U.C. Davis have been women. And, I am proud to report we now have the highest percent of women faculty among the top 50 engineering programs in the United States.
This year, along with 13 other universities, we founded an initiative overseen by the American Association for the Advancement of Science called STEM Equality Achievement Change, which is designed to recognize and distinguish departments, colleges and institutions of higher learning for their diversity and inclusion, with bronze, silver and gold awards. The idea is for institutions to collect data voluntarily, set goals and develop action plans for improving their recruitment, hiring and retention of undergraduate and graduate students and faculty in STEM fields.
In my career, I’ve often been one of a few women in an engineering department, and as I rose in seniority, I was one of a handful of women in an engineering college or division. When I came to Davis, there were so many more women at every level. The real difference I’ve seen here is that the faculty genuinely believe and embrace the mission of inclusivity and diversity, and not just because someone (like the dean) is telling them to do something. They actually believe it enhances excellence and is important to help students succeed.
Jennifer Sinclair Curtis is the dean of engineering at the University of California, Davis. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the American Society for Engineering Education. She has served on numerous national advisory boards and committees, including currently co-chairing the National Academies Chemical Science Roundtable.