Even as women and minorities pursue higher education at ever-increasing rates, some disciplines, especially in the sciences, continue to struggle to capture their interest.
And that’s why the Department of Mechanical Engineering is embarking on new efforts designed to attract more women to the program.
The statistics are striking: Of the 152 UW-Madison mechanical engineering bachelor’s degrees conferred in the 2013-14 school year, 138—nearly 90 percent—were to men. Only 16 women received bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering that year. Meanwhile, women made up about 20 percent of the graduating class of the entire College of Engineering that year (women received 53 percent of the bachelor’s degrees university-wide in 2014).
As department chair Jaal Ghandhi sees it, the deficit of women in UW-Madison’s mechanical engineering program is a longstanding challenge that requires immediate attention.
“In essence, the department has been about 10 percent women for about as far back in time as I’ve gone to dig up statistics,” Ghandhi says. “In the college, on the other hand, about a quarter are women. And our 10-percent number is actually a little bit below the national average for mechanical engineering.”
As a first step toward a larger planned diversity initiative, in fall 2016 the department launched its Women in Mechanical Engineering program. At its core is a mentorship program that pairs incoming female freshmen with juniors and seniors. The idea is to show the incoming women—who undoubtedly will continue to be outnumbered in the years to come—that women can be, and are, successful mechanical engineers at UW-Madison.
“In high school, the gender breakdown is 50/50,” Ghandhi says. “These young women come here and probably their first year in calculus and chemistry and courses like that, it’s still probably about 30 percent women. But then when they get into the upper-level mechanical engineering classes, there might be a class of 20 and they might be the only female in the class, and that’s just a different experience.”
It’s an experience that senior Jessie Thomas knows well, which was a driving factor for her decision to become involved in the program as a mentor.
“When they brought up the idea of the mentoring program I thought, ‘Oh, that would be so cool because I wish I had that when I was a freshman,’” Thomas says. “That would’ve been awesome.”
Thomas, a double major in mechanical engineering and English, recently completed a co-op at Sub Zero in Madison. It’s a milestone that she says she wasn’t always confident she would achieve, partly because she at times felt out of place in the mechanical engineering program, even though both her parents are engineers.
“I think it can be really intimidating as a woman in mechanical engineering because when you’re coming in it seems like a lot of the guys know a lot of this stuff already,” Thomas says. “They’ve been under the hood of a vehicle since they were five years old—and I’m not saying that some women haven’t had that either—but that hadn’t been my experience.”
Thomas says as she’s progressed through her major, she doesn’t usually notice the gender disparity, but every once in a while it becomes glaringly obvious. “One of my friends who’s also a woman leaned over to me the other day in our circuits class, and she says, ‘There’s like nine women in this class,’ of 100-some,” says Thomas.
She also says there’s a feeling that all of the men know each other, and crossing social barriers is not always a straightforward task. “You want to be able to make friends, you want to learn from them as co-students,” she says. “But that can be a challenge, because there aren’t many women and it sometimes feels like the men are thinking, ‘Oh, she’s talking to me!’—and I’m just being friendly.”
Freshman Mari McPheron and Thomas were paired up through the Women in Mechanical Engineering program and have enjoyed the relationship from day one.
McPheron enrolled in the mechanical engineering program because she loved math in high school and enjoys the blend of technical and creative skill that engineering requires. She says she opted to join the Women in Mechanical Engineering because she felt overwhelmed by the transition into college. So far, McPheron’s been very happy with the program, she says.
“My experience has been really good,” McPheron says. “Jessie and I had a lot of similar experiences, so talking with her really helps me. Just getting her advice has really helped me and has given me a new perspective on things and encouraged me.”
Though mentoring is at the center of the Women in ME program, Ghandhi says the department is hosting regular social hours so women in the program can share some social time with each other.
“We want to avoid making this another student organization, with a president and vice president and responsibilities like that,” Ghandhi says.
Instead, the department hosts monthly get-togethers, where women are invited to hang out, do homework or simply chat over pizza.
“Additionally, we plan to bring in speakers,” Ghandhi says. “Mainly alumnae who have gone on to very successful careers and can come back and share their experiences both as students here as well as in the workplace.”
To learn more about how you can contribute to the success of this program, contact Brad Green, director of development for the Department of Mechanical Engineering, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (608) 308-5354.
Author: Will Cushman