You’ve Come a Long Way STEM Baby – By Gay Morgan Moore

Recently, I received a copy of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville CBE UPDATE, a publication of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Featuring an article concerning the department’s 2014 faculty and student awards, I was amazed to find almost all of the undergraduate recipients were women, including the university-wide Chancellor’s Honors Award. Things have certainly changed from when I attended UT many years ago when women were actively discouraged from entering the College of Engineering. I contacted CBE Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award winner, Dr. Paul Frymier, who was happy to talk about a subject “near and dear” to his heart: recruiting and retaining students, especially women, in chemical and bio-molecular engineering.

Dr. Frymeir stated the current ratio of undergraduate students in chemical and biomolecular engineering is about 60/40 men to women, as compared to an 80/20 ratio in the College of Engineering as a whole. He theorized women are more represented in the chemical and bimolecular engineering curriculum, as opposed to other engineering curricula, because chemical engineering increasingly includes biology, often leading to careers in the pharmaceutical, food processing, and consumer products industries.

However, by graduate school the number of women and minority men drops off dramatically. Due to high entry level salaries and vigorous recruiting by industries, as they attempt to diversify their workforce, virtually all graduates who wish to work are employed within a few months of graduation. Additionally, engineering is a professional degree and one can advance in industry without an advanced degree.

Competition with industry is also one of the difficulties leading to a lack of female engineering faculty. Other obstacles include arduous tenure requirements, fewer female role models, implicit bias in search committees, and even the ways women are described as opposed to men in letters of recommendation.

Asked about the backgrounds of his students, Dr. Frymier stated many of them are public school graduates. Often their parents are engineers or chemists, who encourage their children’s interests in chemical engineering. He also feels chemistry is viewed as a part of the high school curriculum where girls succeed, as compared, unfortunately, to physics. This carries over into college choices.

Dr. Frymier maintains contact with many of his former students, finding, “not an insignificant number of female graduates leave employment to become full time parents.” Uncertain as to whether or not they re-enter the work force after a period of time, he stated a rusty skill set and the travel demands of many positions present a barrier to women returning to and remaining in in the field.

Dr. Frymier suggested I speak with Dr. Leon Tolbert of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department. Dr. Tolbert emphasized women who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering can chose from “dozens” of job oppurtinuites and beginning salaries ranging from $65,000 to $70,000 yearly. Even though women receive the higher end of the salary range, the department experiences difficulty recruiting and retaining women students.

The computer engineering faculty became increasingly concerned in the past few years when their percentage of female students dropped from 8% to 6%, even as 20% of the students in the College of Engineering as a whole are women. In partial response, they organized “Systers,” an organization of women engineering students from all disciplines. This group sponsored information sessions, social events, speakers, and an orientation for incoming engineering students. This group worked “amazingly well,” benefiting both female and male students. The department also sends students to national conferences, such as Women in Computing, to increase contact with a wider range of mentors and role models.

Dr. Tolbert cited the need for more female faculty members to serve as mentors and role models for women students. Currently, approximately 20% of the faculty in the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science are women. Most of the newer faculty members are foreign nationals, while most undergraduates are from Tennessee and he feels that the lack of “like me” role models may effect student retention. He also believes women handle obstacles differently than men. Women tend to want to talk about difficulties with another person and, “If there are not many around, women are quicker to assume they need to enter another field. Men tend to keep difficulties to themselves or change the situation.”

Although progress continues, Dr. Tolbert stated it will take a long time to increase the number of women in computer engineering, as it is still considered a man’s field. Additionally, both sexes may view the field as “nerdy” and assume computer engineers sit alone in their cubicles all day. However, they do not take into account those engineers may be working on the latest version of the iPhone or space technology. He believes employers have difficulty retaining women, for much the same reason engineering schools have difficulty retaining students, lack of community. He observes women engineers are not necessarily treated badly, just differently. They tire of being the only woman on projects and committees. Furthermore, employers may lack family friendly policies and travel demands may be more problematic for women than men.

Agreeing with Dr. Frymier, Dr. Tolbert feels high starting salaries make pursuing a graduate degree less attractive to many graduates. Currently, approximately 75% of the electrical engineering and computer science Ph.D. students, 25% of whom are women, are from India and China.

With respect to academic preparation, Dr. Tolbert feels women are just as intelligent and prepared as men, but women students tend to lose confidence due to lack of women mentors and role models. Across the board, he asserts, “There is a realization that we are missing out on a significant portion of the population when women do not enter STEM. Hopefully, multiple efforts will result in higher numbers, but it will take a very long period of sustained efforts to increase the numbers to even 25% or 30%.”

Fortunately, efforts on many fronts are encouraging women to enter STEM. Not only are high schools, colleges, and universities making special efforts to attract and retain women students and recruit faculty, employers are aggressively recruiting women. According to the Department of Commerce, U.S. employers will need approximately 1 million more STEM workers than are currently projected to graduate over the next decade. None the less, retaining women at all stages of education and employment continues to be a challenge.

At the national level, the Commerce Department’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, encourages partnerships with businesses, organizations, and government to recruit and mentor girls. Such partnerships include NASA and the Girl Scouts of America, Merck Pharmaceuticals and Girls Inc., and the Entertainment Industries Council efforts to improve the image of women in STEM. The Obama administration is also encouraging employers to institute more family friendly policies.

The role of parental involvement and encouragement in the choices and success of young women in STEM fields cannot be over-stated. A fact strongly emphasized by educators and those employed in STEM fields.

According to the “Career and Workplace Study” conducted by the American Association of University Women, women occupy less than 20% of all STEM related jobs, with African American, Hispanic, and Native American women more under-represented. As the University of Tennessee’s Dr. Leon Tolbert emphasized, it will take multiple, sustained efforts over a very long time to improve the number of women in STEM.

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