Some thoughts on gender equity in Engineering at CU Boulder

The other night I took a group of CU Boulder Mechanical Engineering undergraduate women to dinner to listen to their stories.  It was a wonderful evening, and I was so touched by them.  They are dedicated, hard-working, brilliant engineers.  Our conversation was important, encouraging, and disheartening all at the same time.  I was encouraged by their enthusiasm and drive. I was disheartened because what they shared is what we know has been happening in the engineering classroom for a while now and it continues to happen. Here is what I distilled from their stories. They experience on a regular basis the following in their education here in CU Boulder Mechanical engineering:

  • They are almost never called on in the classroom by their professors. They have given up raising their hand or trying to contribute.
  • They are almost always delegated to a nontechnical role on a team.
  • Their solutions to problems are almost always discounted when working on a team or in a group.
  • Many of their female peers have left, usually after freshman year, but the ones that are still in our program are toughened to the climate that exists, which I can only describe as unsupportive of female students.

I joined CU Boulder as an assistant professor in 1998.  Since I have been here there has been very little change in the percent of female students in my classroom.  It has been between 10-15%.  Note that I went to Harvey Mudd College for my undergraduate degree way back when, and when I was there it was 10% female students.  It is now at 46% female students.  It can be done.  Here is some data from CU Boulder Mechanical Engineering (Table 1):

Table 1. Percentage of Mechanical Engineering Students and Faculty within the Given Demographic Categories*  

Undergraduate students Graduate students T/TT Faculty Other Research & Instructional Faculty
Female 16% (+15%) 20% (+11%) 22% 33%
International 14% (+249%) 34% (+15%) 8% 8%
Minority 25% (+49%) 16% (-7%) 28% 8%
Under-represented Minority 16% (+79%) 9% (-10%) 1% 8%

*For students, percentage change over the past five years (2011 – 2016) is shown in parenthesis

Many people use the excuse that we have low enrollment but that is ok because so does everyone else at US Universities. Nationally, women comprise 14% of mechanical engineering BS graduates, 15% of MS graduates and 16% of Ph.D. graduates.  By the way, the freshman class this year in our department was 122 students, of which 17% female.

I have an acute sense of this since I am also part of the Environmental Engineering Program here at CU Boulder.  In that program, the freshman class this year was 51 students, 59% female. We have been consistently at 50% female undergraduates in our EVEN program.

My experience in the classroom, where we have over 30% women in an EVEN classroom compared to a classroom with just 15% women is distinctly positive and different. And that is a whole other conversation, with the bottom line that diversity is better for everyone.

Other important numbers to consider: the 2017 6-y graduation rate for female students at CU Boulder dropped 4 points from last year, to 70%, the lowest rate since the 2003 cohort.

Here is a figure (Figure 1) that shows the percentage of women entering the College of Engineering and Applied Science, and the slope is going up, that is encouraging. Also shown is the percentage that return to CEAS in their 2nd fall and the gradation by 6th summer from engineering.


Figure 1. Percentage of female students entering the College of Engineering and Applied Science, CU Boulder. Also shown is the percentage that returns to engineering their 2nd year, and has graduated by the 6th summer from engineering.

What can we do?

Here are some suggestions…

First do a little research to see what is happening and what works to change the problem.  I read this book What Works – Gender Equality by Design, by Iris Bonnet.  I learned from this book that unconscious bias is holding us all back, but that it is difficult to de-bias people. We really need to used evidence-based interventions in organizations that address gender bias, and improves performance and the lives all those within the organization. I also read Broad Influence: How Women are Changing the Way America Works, by Jay Newton-Small.  I learned from this book that when at least 30% of the people at the table are women, it changes everything. It can change the work that gets done, communication style, culture of the workplace, etc. There are many more books but these two got me started.  I also read many articles to understand what is the current evidence-based science on gender equity in STEM.  Like this one from the Harvard Business Review, Why do so many women who study engineering leave the field? by Susan S. Silbey, which shares from a survey of 700 engineering students across four schools that “female students do as well or better than male students in school—but often point to the hegemonic masculine culture of engineering itself as a reason for leaving.”

For some additional actions…

These are some ideas that I have come up with after talking with colleagues at CU Boulder.  Specifically, in Mechanical Engineering we need to continue to strongly advocate for changing the culture so that it is supportive of both male and female students. One way to do this is make sure we have more than 30% female students, staff, and instructors. We immediately need to admit more women to Mechanical Engineering, both graduate and undergraduates, perhaps through 2-year scholarships to incentivize them and to show them that we really want to have them in our department. If we just continue to admit the typical percentage that we have been, we will never get there while I am still a professor at CU Boulder.

And obviously we need to keep our bright, hard-working students enrolled once they are here.  (Of course, it is important to acknowledge that engineering is not for everyone and many do come not really knowing what it is and whether it is a good choice for them). How do we do this? We need to make a tremendous effort to change the culture in our classrooms. And hallways, study areas, labs, etc. We can do this by having open conversations about what is the experience of our students, and we can ask them how we can help. Continue to create supportive communities, make sure the instructors in classes are including both the men and women in class discussions, create project groups that support female students in technical roles and have clear discussions with each team that all student ideas and solutions are valued and welcome. We can follow the ideas from the BOLD center, where the environment is supportive and inclusive.

We need to hire more female faculty consistently. At CU Boulder the overall faculty gender ratio has remained flat for the last 10 years at 62% men and 38% women (differences in departments are stark: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has increased female faculty 63% over the last 10 years so that now it is 42% women and 58% men; Physics faculty have ranged between 4-7 women and between 37-40 men over the last 10 years, so that the ratio is 15% women and 85% men). Women as role models in the classroom are important for all of our students. To hire more female faculty, we should move to blind searches, such as the one that was just successfully completed here at CU Boulder’s Business school.  Once faculty are here, we need to create equitable systems that help them succeed. Provide them with supportive mentoring. We need to ensure that our female faculty are not saddled with disproportionate amounts of service, as is often the case.  Valuing collaborative interdisciplinary research would go a long way in supporting and promoting minority and female researchers, since this is often they type of work that interests them.  These are just some ideas that I have put out there, and I am sure there are many more good ones.  Let’s get all of the hands on deck.