Gender gap doesn't discourage women in engineering field
BY THE NUMBERS
Men vs. women at College of Engineering in 2011
Source: OU Factbook
When Lan Le, electrical engineering junior, applied for an internship after her sophomore year of college, she became one of the few students her age to have nabbed one. Part of the reason she got it, Le believes, is her gender.
“Walking in, I feel like I have the upper hand because I’m different. I’m a minority. I’m a woman,” she said, explaining that many companies want to meet a certain quota of female employees and might give female applicants preference over males.
In the professional world, Le witnessed the existing gender gap, but the division between the two sexes didn’t begin once she got the internship. It was something she first experienced while studying engineering at OU, where women make up only a little over 20 percent of the total number of students enrolled in the college, according to the OU Factbook.
In 2011, 569 women were enrolled in the engineering college, as compared to the 2,178 men enrolled in the same college, according to the Factbook. From the previous year, the number of women enrolled increased about 3 percent while the number of men enrolled increased 7 percent.
Yet Le didn’t struggle with the gender gap, she said, even though it was noticeable — at some times more than others.
“When you walk in, I’m not going to lie, most of the guys there, they kind of know it’s a male dominated field,” she said.
Most of Le’s classes were predominantly male, she said, and just walking through the hallways she could clearly see it. However, that didn’t hold her back.
The same is true for other women within the college. In environmental science junior Carolyn Arens’ case, it only pushed her forward.
“Often you’re the only girl in your group and you have to learn to deal with that,” she said. “It’s not necessarily challenging if you don’t let it be, but it can be an extra boost for you to show up the boys.”
While the gap may not affect the men and women in the classroom individually, it could have effects on the way the students solve problems both in the classroom and on the job because of how gender affects perspective, said Simin Pulat, associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Engineering.
“Engineering is not just the application of math and science. One must consider societal and cultural impacts of engineering,” she said. “Hence, it is important to consider all perspectives in engineering design and during every stage of the problem solving process.”
However, that issue may one day be resolved at OU because the gap has been steadily decreasing over time.
From 2006 to 2011, women’s enrollment in the college has grown by 40 percent. The college itself has only grown by 25 percent, according to the OU Factbook.
Additionally, OU has a more even ratio of men to women within its engineering college than other engineering colleges in the region, but they would still like to improve and get more women involved, Pulat said.
As a way to get more female involvement in the college, outreach efforts have begun to attract potential engineers at an earlier age. The college puts on two events a year to start getting girls interested while still in middle school and high school, Arens said.
One of the events is called Girls Learning about Math and Science. During this event, middle-school-aged girls come to OU and learn exactly what engineering entails, as well as participate in hands-on activities to give them a feel for what engineers do in the field, she said.
As well, every spring the college hosts High School Girls Day to give girls who are a little older a taste of what it’s like to be an engineer, she said.
A large part of why women in particular don’t choose to be engineers at the same rate as men has to do with misunderstanding what exactly engineering is and what engineers do, Pulat said.
“The general notion is that if you like math and science and you like building things, then you should be an engineer. Many women also like math and science but not all like building things,” she said. “More women and underrepresented minorities are drawn to professions that are known to save lives.”
One of Pulat’s goals is to reverse the stereotype that engineering doesn’t save lives and through that attract more women to the field, she said.
Another reason women aren’t as prevalent in the college may be because of the stigmas around engineering, Le said.
“I think males are more lenient toward becoming engineers because when you think of engineering, you think of cars, you think of fixing, you think of getting dirty. Guys want that more,” she said.
That’s not the case with engineering, Le said, and that’s what more and more of her friends are finding out as they progress through the college.
“They didn’t think they’d be doing what they’re doing. They didn’t understand the full concept until later on when it was explained to them,” she said.
For Le, though, engineering is simple. It’s the cars on the road, the classrooms students sit in, the books they buy. Engineering has a role in almost all parts of life — and it’s not defined by gender, she said.
“[Engineering] is everything. What do you think powers this building? Electricity. Electrical engineering. What built this structure? Civil. Mechanical. Industrial,” she said. “You name it, we do everything.”