IT recruits more women

Females comprise about 16 percent of IT’s student body, prompting more recruitment.

Karlee Weinmann

From generation to generation, traditional gender roles are blurred and once-exclusive sects of society accomodate a wider range of people.

But in engineering, males clearly reign.

Postsecondary institutions across the nation are pushing to enroll more female students in male-dominated undergraduate engineering programs. For a variety of reasons, the University’s Institute of Technology implemented initiatives it hopes will diversify and improve programs.

In 2002, IT faculty noticed just 18.4 percent of enrolled first-year students were female, a marked decrease in numbers that had been as high as 22 percent roughly a decade ago. To combat the issue, IT created a position in the admissions office to focus on recruiting qualified women for its programs.

By fall 2006, the number of females enrolling increased to 16.3 percent, up from 15.3 percent in fall 2005, after fluctuation in previous years. There are now 725 women in IT out of its approximately 4,450 students.

Carol Burger, an associate professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, spent a half-decade researching women in Information Technology, including engineers. She said the importance of having more females in engineering programs extends beyond establishing gender equity.

“It’s economic, because if you don’t look at half the population upon which to draw scientists and engineers, you’re losing a lot of talent,” she said. “It’s counterproductive for our economy and our progress for technology.”

Engineers and those in related fields account for 50 percent of the sustained fiscal growth over the last half of the twentieth century, according to Betty Shanahan, executive director and chief executive officer of the Society of Women Engineers.

“That’s 5 percent of the work force that’s responsible for innovation providing 50 percent of the economic growth in this country,” she said.

The University’s SWE chapter has about 120 active members and focuses recruiting efforts on younger females interested in engineering. The group has three members whose main duties are planning outreach programs.

“We know women are the minority in math and science (programs),” said mechanical engineering junior Melissa Goetsch, an active member of the group. “As females, we will definitely stand out in the job field.”

In the fall, the group hosts “Check IT Out,” a program in which high school girls interested in the University and engineering take a full day to tour campus facilities and participate in related activities.

The group also hosts a springtime engineering event for area Girl Scouts.

Roberta Humphreys, IT associate dean for academic affairs, said recruitment efforts seem to be working, and the effects of new efforts to target potential female students will be closely monitored.

Last summer, IT debuted “Exploring Careers in Science and Engineering,” a week-long day camp for 25 10th- through 12th-grade girls. Participants worked in labs and met female undergraduates, graduates and faculty.

This summer, the camp will be offered for four one-week sessions, two of which will be open exclusively to girls.

Humphreys also heads IT Women, one of the sponsoring groups.

“It’s a program that’s intended to recruit, retain and encourage women in science and engineering,” she said.

Humphreys said the retention and recruitment of female faculty members is key to increasing diversity of perspectives within IT, as well as providing students examples of successful women in a male-monopolized field.

Currently, 39 of the 400 total IT faculty members are female, the highest the ratio has ever been, which Humphreys attributes to an implicit gender bias.

“I think the University and the Institute of Technology could do more to both recruit women for the faculty and retain them,” she said. “But there’s been some increase in awareness of the problem.”

Burger said colleges across the nation play a crucial part in welcoming more women to engineering.

“I don’t want to say you don’t need money,” she said. “You need money, but you also need the will and the willingness of the institution to sponsor, promote and institutionalize those programs.”

Burger said she sees a new promise for engineering in today’s tech-savvy girls and hopes this generation will at last accelerate advancement of women in the field.

“What I’ve seen in the last 30 years is glacial movement,” she said. “We’ve been beating the same drum for 20 or 25 years now.”