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Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable (US); National Academy of Sciences (US); National Academy of Engineering (US); Institute of Medicine (US); Fox MA, editor. Pan-Organizational Summit on the US Science and Engineering Workforce: Meeting Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2003.

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Pan-Organizational Summit on the US Science and Engineering Workforce: Meeting Summary.

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WEPAN Position Statement

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Jan Rinehart, President, Susan Staffin Metz, Immediate Past President, Sherry Woods, President-Elect, Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network (WEPAN)

STATEMENT OF ORGANIZATION AND MISSION

WEPAN is a not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1990. WEPAN is dedicated to catalyzing change to enhance the success of women of all ethnicities in the engineering profession.

STATEMENT OF POSITION

Demographic trends indicate that by the year 2005, women will represent 62 percent of new entrants into the United States' labor force, and underrepresented minorities will represent 51 percent (Judy and D'Amico, 1997). In addition, employment opportunities for science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) jobs during 1998-2008 are expected to increase by about 51 percent or about 1.9 million jobs. It is WEPAN's position that policies must recognize these demographic shifts and must address systemic changes to meet the national need for engineers. Without addressing the lack of women studying engineering and the underrepresentation of women in the engineering workforce, the gap between the national need and the supply of engineers will not change. In essence, we put the nation at risk.

A principal effect of these population changes based upon recent trends and projections for coming decades, is that engineering's traditional talent pool of Caucasian men is rapidly becoming insufficient to meet future demands in both industry and academia. It is therefore imperative that greater emphasis be placed upon preparing the women and minorities who will be a majority of the available workforce to enter these fields—and whose representation within engineering has grown steadily, if slowly, in recent decades.

Women remain severely underrepresented at all levels in the U.S.: representing 9 percent of the engineering workforce; 20.5 percent of baccalaureate degree recipients, 22 percent of master's degree recipients, and 14.7 percent of doctoral degree recipients (Engineering Workforce Commission of the American Association of Engineering Societies, Inc., Engineering and Technology Degrees 2001).

The response by policymakers must, therefore, be viewed as a national priority. Policies must go beyond simple encouragement, which thus far has proven inadequate in bringing women to the engineering classrooms, laboratories, and workforce. Beyond numbers, women represent a vital source of intellectual talent that can no longer go untapped.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR POLICY

WEPAN recommends the adoption of national, state, and local policies that serve significantly to enhance science and mathematics education at all grade levels, while aggressively implementing initiatives that will increase enrollment and retention of women in engineering at the college level. We need to increase the public awareness of the role and mission of engineers so that “being an engineer” means something tangible to the general public. To encourage girls and women to consider and pursue careers in engineering, WEPAN believes that policies must address two broad areas:

  • The popular understanding of what engineering is, who engineers are, and how they contribute to society
  • The “culture” in which engineering is taught at the university level.

POPULAR UNDERSTANDING OF ENGINEERING AND PRECOLLEGE OUTREACH

Only 8 percent of all students taking the SAT intend to major in engineering. Of this group, 19 percent are girls of all races and ethnicities. Girls are taking the necessary math and science classes in secondary school to major in engineering. Over 40 percent of high school physics and calculus students are girls (NSF, 1999; American College Testing, 1998). Girls are prepared for engineering majors. They are just not interested. Engineering is currently failing to interest students, male or female, in becoming engaged in the profession. This general lack of interest may be attributed to a lack of awareness. In a 1998 Harris poll, 61 percent of Americans described themselves as “not very well informed” or “not at all informed” about engineering and engineers. Among women, the percentage increased to 78 percent; among college graduates, 53 percent.

Addressing problems of how engineers and engineering are understood and perceived could be addressed, at least partly, through simple interaction (by students and their teachers alike) with representatives from within the field. Another avenue is reaching out to media- and tech-savvy youth of the early 21st century in ways they can understand. Depictions of science, engineering, and technology in movies and television are more present than ever before in medical and crime shows. September 11, 2001, has been accompanied by heightened visibility and increased public discussion and debate, both of which create opportunities for expanded understanding of the role of science and engineering in our daily lives. Educators and practitioners should capitalize on these opportunities that are relevant to young people.

Programs that supplement the science and math curricula in lower grades, provide mentoring at all levels, enlighten students about the importance of science and technology to society, and educate students about the broad range of career opportunities in engineering, need to continue to increase the representation of women in engineering. However, outreach alone is not sufficient to effect meaningful change. After-school programs or summer camps, while a valuable component, are not going to increase participation in numbers adequate to address the problem on a national scale.

What is called for, instead, is a systemic shift toward engagement with teachers, schools, and entire school systems. Educators from kindergarten through graduate school must join with professional engineers in developing an innovative approach that is dynamic, systemic, and synergistic. For example, Massachusetts has taken the lead by incorporating engineering principles as part of the state's educational standards, a first in the U.S. Texas has also taken a step in this direction by accepting an engineering-based course as a science credit at the high school level.

UNIVERSITY CULTURE

Addressing issues of the engineering “culture” in the university environment is imperative to ensure the long-term success of women who enter the field. The difficulties women students experience in attempting to retain their intrinsic interest in science and engineering in environments that undercut their confidence, motivation, and sense of belonging in the field, pose formidable obstacles to their completion of academic training and/or satisfactory performance in engineering careers.

Research strongly suggests that factors unrelated to academic performance are largely to blame for a disproportionate drop-out rate among women engineering students:

  • According to the 1998 report, Women and Men of the Engineering Path, women and men earn similar grades in engineering courses, and women who leave engineering have higher grades than men who stay. It is not, therefore, poor academic performance that drives women out of engineering, but higher levels of dissatisfaction.
  • The persistence rates for women in math, science, and engineering programs range from 30 to 46 percent, depending on the type of institution—far below the 39 to 61 percent rate for their male counterparts (Adelman, 1998).

A 1998 national pilot climate study by WEPAN found that, although male and female students responded similarly in many cases, perceptions of their college experience differed widely. Women, for example, generally rated their experience lower in areas relating to feelings of self-confidence, such as comfort level with lab equipment, the sense that engineering is the “right” major, and participation in classroom discussion. Many institutions participating in the pilot study have recommended changes at their institutions based on its results (Brainard et al., 1999).

The recently released Goodman Research Group's (GRG) final report on the Women's Experiences in College Engineering (WECE) Project (2002) provides comprehensive quantitative evidence that women's assessments of (1) their self-confidence in their academic abilities, (2) the engineering department environment, and (3) the engineering classroom environment are vital factors in their persistence in engineering majors. The study also demonstrates that women who participate more frequently in engineering support activities, particularly those combining social and academic interaction, are less likely to leave engineering majors. As both Adelman (1998) and Goodman (2002) have documented, women students are not leaving engineering because they cannot make the grade or because they find the curriculum too challenging. Instead, it is the lack of social interaction and sense of community within the field of inquiry, and the divorce of curriculum from real-work application (Goodman, 2002).

Margolis and Fisher's 2001 book, Unlocking the Clubhouse, asserts that confidence issues for women in computer science require and deserve institutional responses of attention, intervention, and remediation. In their well-structured, longitudinal study, Margolis and Fisher explore multiple dimensions of this issue in careful detail. Their findings also counter casual myths (e.g., about the so-called natural distribution of interest and aptitude) that have inhibited or misdirected earlier remedial efforts. Further, their model of undergraduate recruitment and retention raises the enrollment of women in undergraduate computer science from 7 percent in 1995 to 42 percent in 2000. And Fisher's work at Carnegie Mellon University provides a host of recommendations on how institutions can change the quality of the student experience to further promote gender equity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.

Identifying recommendations and policies that can affect the culture within universities is no small task. WEPAN proposes the following:

  • Link research funds to first- and second-year retention of engineering students in the researcher's home institution.
  • Require that universities collect and publish data that are disaggregated by race and gender. A standard definition of first- and second-year retention would need to be defined and observed.
  • Evaluation criteria for research grants should include status or improvement in enrollment, retention, and graduation rates of undergraduate and graduate women and underrepresented minorities.
  • Performance evaluation for department heads within universities should include status or progress of recruitment, retention, and promotion of women faculty.
  • Funding agencies should review guidelines and expand criteria to include the replication of tested programs and initiatives, not just a focus on new and original ideas.

WEPAN's final recommendation bridges public awareness, pre-college outreach, and university culture of engineering. At this time, the focus continues to be the pipeline. How do we get more kindergarten students to develop and sustain their interest in engineering? Most students do not have an opportunity to fully explore engineering until they reach college. All students, but girls in particular, are not ready to narrow their choices and select a major such as engineering that precludes study in other areas. When students are asked to declare a major, given the stereotypes, lack of awareness, and male-dominated environment, the choice to major in engineering loses far too often, particularly among women and people of color. It is time to develop alternate pathways and frameworks at the college level that can engage students in engineering beyond the first or even second year of college. Given the rigorous curriculum, this is a challenge. But engineers always meet challenges and we implore them to do so. Too many creative minds are being lost in the current process.

Since 1990, WEPAN has taken the lead in promoting change to increase the number and success of women in engineering. Our impact has been significant; yet the systemic change now needed will require collaborative efforts and, more importantly, policy changes that have the real power to positively impact the demographics of tomorrow's engineering and science workforce.

REFERENCES

  1. Adelman C. Women and Men of the Engineering Path: A Model for Analyses of Undergraduate Careers. U.S. Department of Education and The National Institute for Science Education; Washington, DC: 1998.
  2. American College Testing. Are America's Students Taking More Science and Mathematics Coursework? 1998. ACT Research Report Series 98.2 Available online at:http://www​.act.org/research/briefs/98​.2.html.
  3. Brainard S, Gilmore G, Metz S. National WEPAN Pilot Climate Survey: Exploring the Environment for Undergraduate Engineering Students; WEPAN National Conference Proceedings; San Antonio, Texas. Jun, 1999.
  4. Engineering Workforce Commission of the American Association of Engineering Societies, Inc. Washington, DC.: 2001.
  5. Goodman, et al. Women's Experiences in College Engineering (WECE) Project 2002. 2002. http://www​.grginc.com/WECE_FINAL_REPORT​.pdf.
  6. Judy R, D'Amico C. Workforce 2020: Work and Workers in the 21st Century. Hudson Institute; Indianapolis, IN: 1997.
  7. Margolis J, Fisher A. Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. MIT Press; Cambridge, MA: 2001.
  8. National Science Foundation. Women and Minorities and People with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, 1998. National Science Foundation; Arlington, VA: 1999.
  9. Strenta C. Choosing and Leaving Science in Highly Selective Institutions: General Factors and the Questions of Gender. Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; New York, NY: 1993.
Copyright © 2003, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK36352

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