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Future Shock

Women in Engineering: New Role Models in Emergent Sciences and Technologies

University Business, May 2010

"Women's Ways of Knowing," by Mary Field Belenky et al. (Basic Books, 1986, 1997), captured the challenges women face not just at home, but in classroom settings, and importantly, suggested how educators can help women develop their authentic voices if they emphasize connection over separation, and collaboration over debate.

Fast forward to the American Association of University Women's most recent study, "Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics." The AAUW study observes that 30 years ago there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the SAT math exam. Today, that ratio has shrunk to about 3:1.

The U.S. Department of Labor projects that by 2018, nine out of the 10 fastest-growing occupations will require scientific or mathematical preparation. This workforce trend provides a useful segue for asking American colleges and universities: How can we get more women interested in studying science, engineering, and technologies? Some say active recruiting, eliminating gender stereotypes, providing mentors, and increasing female faculty members are a good start.

We know that there is a strong correlation between increased women engineering faculty and increased likelihood of female students majoring in a scientific or technical field. Women engineers and scientists now need to be given a meaningful opportunity to become more directly connected with female faculty and more significantly involved in hands-on research under the watchful guidance of female academic mentors.

In engineering, female faculty leaders can serve as living examples in recruiting women and sharing their special science and engineering learning experience. From this perspective, Wentworth Institute of Technology (Mass.) is a somewhat unique best practices institution. As the first female president to lead Wentworth, Zorica Pantic has been a positive change agent, academic leader, and champion for recruiting and mentoring women engineering students.

Pantic suggests one solution is getting female students involved in science at an early age. "I decided on my career early in life. So, I think it is very important to have role models," she explains. "That's why we want to go to high schools and even middle schools, and talk to girls and show them examples of women in science and engineering and other disciplines. One of the hallmarks of a Wentworth education is the development and application of a technical skill in a real world setting."

How can institutions get more women interested in studying science, engineering, and technologies?

Beyond this impressive enrollment growth rate, Wentworth has developed several highly effective specific learning and career shadowing experiences.

? Women at Wentworth brings together alumnae, students, faculty, staff, and friends in the areas of design, engineering, construction, technology, and management to make contacts, exchange ideas, and strengthen bonds.

? Wentworth's annual Women's Leadership Conference is a daylong conference where female students can hear from women leaders in their specific field and attend workshops where educational experiences are provided to ensure success in all aspects of life. The event aims to create community and camaraderie among the women of Wentworth.

? Women's Overnight program has been an effective recruiting tool by demonstrating the accomplishments of Wentworth's female students and the opportunities that are open to them.

? The Woman to Woman Program provides a social and informational forum for female students to meet other students, faculty, and staff members, share their experiences, and develop mentor relationships.

? Massachusetts Girls Collaborative is an outreach effort to stimulate women students to explore future careers in the emergent fields of life sciences.

For more than a century, Wentworth has been educating its students in technical disciplines through hands-on learning, real-world problem solving, classroom instruction and practical work experience. Each year, more and more Wentworth women earn degrees in science, engineering, and technology.

Part industry expert and insider, part women's engineering student mentor and part faculty leader, Pantic has painted an empowering pathway for inspiring future women engineering scholars. As a role model for future female leaders and engineers, she embodies the technical, scientific, professional, and interpersonal skills important to success.

James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.