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National CrossTalk Summer 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

News
1 of 3 Stories

Closing the Gender Gap
Smith College offers the first engineering track at an all-women college

By Jon Marcus

Northampton, Massachusetts

The name of one of the newest courses at Smith College may seem self-explanatory to the literal-minded science students who attend this elite all-women, liberal arts school.

English majors are to be forgiven if they prefer to dwell on the symbolism.

The class is called Designing the Future, and it serves as the introduction to Smith's new undergraduate engineering program. It is literally a course in mechanical and electrical design. But it also marks the first engineering track at an all-women college, and only the third at a top liberal arts school.

Symbolism is, in fact, a part of the equation. Smith's new self-contained engineering major, which replaces a modest dual-degree program with Dartmouth College, has only one professor and 19 students. At capacity, it is projected to produce only 25 graduates per year, beginning some time after 2004. But it is in the vanguard of a concerted new movement to increase the number of women in a field seemingly more cloistered than any outside the Catholic priesthood-and to change the way all engineers are taught.

"The world would be different in all kinds of ways if there were more women in this profession," said John Connolly, provost and dean of the faculty. "Smith can't do that alone, but we can send a message here." Besides, he said, "the impact on the campus is significantly greater if you have a program of this kind. The New York Times doesn't put you on the front page for signing an agreement with Dartmouth."

 
  New engineering faculty members Barbara Voss (center) and Borjana Mikic (far right) walk with students on the Smith College campus  
National publicity was not the only payoff. Corporate sponsors including Boeing, Ford and Hewlett-Packard, anxious to recruit women engineers, have showered money and equipment on the campus. And there are expectations that Smith's already high caliber of students will be heightened even further with the addition of aspiring engineers. "Engineering students tend on the whole to be smarter than other students by standard measures, and I think that's important to the college," said Connolly. "In general, a college that has an engineering program can expect to be enrolling more bright students."

It is also no coincidence that the addition of a program such as engineering, in which women are so vastly underrepresented, bolsters the idea of all-women education at a time when the number of women's colleges is falling. With 2,800 students, Smith is the nation's largest all-women college, one of the famous Seven Sisters-reduced to five since Vassar went co-ed and Radcliffe merged with Harvard.

"Along the way we had the feeling that if we didn't do this, someone else would," acknowledges Malgorzata Pfabe, a physics professor who pushed for the engineering major, and who is an advisor to some of its first students. "There was an element of competition. And, of course, it fit in with our tradition."

Smith students major in science at nearly three times the national rate for college women, and the school ranks in the top three percent among all colleges in the proportion of alumni who earn Ph.D.s in science. That makes it a powerful factor in the newfound effort to increase the number of women engineers.

In 1950, barely one-third of one percent of engineering students were women. That number would improve only incrementally. Twenty-five years later, women represented barely two percent of engineering students. And while women have made enormous gains in other science disciplines-comprising three-quarters of psychology majors, and half of biology majors, for example-they still earn only 17 percent of undergraduate degrees in engineering today. A paltry nine percent of all working engineers are women.

 
  Physics professor Malgorzata Pfabe pushed for the new engineering major and will advise some of its first students.  
In some engineering fields, the gender gap actually has been widening. The number of computer science degrees awarded to women has plummeted from 37 percent in 1984 to 16 percent today. Women make up only about a quarter of systems analysts, and less than 30 percent of programmers. This at a time when there are 400,000 vacant information technology jobs, a figure expected to rise to one million by 2003. The National Science Foundation anticipates growth in engineering-related jobs will be triple that for other jobs, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the demand for computer engineers will double by 2006.

Filling jobs is not the only goal of new programs designed to draw more women into engineering. There is a simultaneous push to train new engineers in communication skills. Accrediting agencies, under pressure from engineering schools and employers, are giving greater weight to the liberal arts in their graduation requirements. Beginning last year, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology began requiring that graduates from engineering programs know such things as how to work on teams.

"Industry, which is the ultimate customer of the product coming out of engineering programs nationwide, was telling us, 'Your graduates aren't coming to us prepared to work," said Maryann Weiss, spokeswoman for the board. Students in Smith's demanding engineering program will have to also study literature, history, social science, natural science, analytic philosophy, a foreign language and fine arts.

"The way we've done engineering in the past is a disservice to engineers in particular and society in general," said Domenico Grasso, who turned down a department chair at Columbia to become the founding head of the new program at Smith. "Engineers have not been properly qualified to deal with the issues that are asked of them…It would be so nice to have bright well-rounded engineers out there."

Women, Grasso said, may actually turn out to be better engineers than men. "Engineers must appreciate and understand the human condition," he said. "The market is in dire need both of women engineers and engineers generally who are well-grounded in their understanding of the human condition."

Yet studies-and the experiences of women who go into the field, including the pioneering young engineers at Smith-indicate that women are consistently discouraged from careers in engineering. Women take fewer classes in math in high school, and score lower than men on the math portion of the SAT.

"Imagine that somebody would ask you to take the SAT in a topic you've hardly studied," said Pfabe. "Of course you would do worse. There's nothing in women that would prevent them from being excellent in science and engineering. Those who go into engineering and into physics do as well as their male peers. There's something that doesn't work well in elementary, middle and high schools, where girls are not encouraged to do science. They are pushed into, for example, social work, or English."

 
  Professor Domenico Grasso, founding head of the new engineering program at Smith College, thinks women might turn out to be better engineers than men.  
Engineering has long been male-oriented. The nation's first engineering program was at West Point, and engineering remained closely associated with the military. More recent studies point out that modern-day computer games also are targeted at boys. There are few female role models in industry or on engineering faculties, only four percent of which are female. And research shows that engineering education is traditionally linear, which tends to be more suited to male patterns of learning, as opposed to collaborative, which researchers say is preferred by women. (At one engineering school that experimented with all-women and all-men orientations, the women were found to share their tools; the men steadfastly refused.)

Smith's new engineering students say they're living proof of this. "When I was growing up, I didn't hear my teacher telling me, 'You can do this,'" said one, Emerson Taylor. "I didn't have any female role models." In math and science class in high school, said another, Kamalea Cott, "I would be confused somewhere along the way, totally lost. I'd ask a question, and they wouldn't hear me." In her high school computer classes, said Smith student Julia Packer, "I was the only girl. It drove me crazy. All the guys would make fun of me. I was in the corner, and they'd be like, 'Oh my god, there's a girl in the class!'"

Another of the first-year Smith engineering students, Sarah Jaffray, said, "Men and women think differently and process things differently. Men don't contemplate things as much. In high school, a lot of the guys in math would pick up things right away and not want to discuss them. I would take maybe twice as long, but I'd still end up at the same place. In my math classes, the men and women would split up."

Women "are more interested in helping the world," Kerri Rossmeier, another of the new Smith students, added without a trace of irony. "Men are focused on making money. Men are inherently cold."

Vive le difference, many of these students say. "I have a lot of guy friends and I'm usually the one to help them solve the problem," said one, Meghan Flanagan. Aruna Sarma says she was the only girl in her school who liked the movie The Matrix. "People find numbers to be cold," said another, Cheruba Prakabar. "I like numbers." That's what attracted Flanagan to a women's college. "You can be yourself. They understand," she said.

For her part, Caitlyn Shea was hesitant to come to a single-sex school. "But it's amazing all the opportunities we're going to get." The college, she says, mailed books, graph paper, even key chains to the students before they even arrived, and has since provided them with tea parties, lunches and special lectures. Nine students per year will receive $10,000 fellowships and, beginning next year, Ford will furnish four full scholarships. "It's almost a handicap," said Sarma. "It feels like I don't have to get good grades-they'll take care of it. But it's nice to know that there are people looking out for us." And Simone Koo, another of the students, said: "If they're going to treat me like a queen because I'm a girl, I'll take it."

More and more universities and colleges are reaching out to girls. The National Science Foundation has allocated $2 million in grant money to increase women's participation in technology fields.

Pennsylvania State University invites Girl Scout troops to its campus on Saturdays for hands-on engineering activities. Newly arriving women engineering students get a special orientation, taught by returning women students. "A lot of the message they're getting is that this is a boy thing," said Barbara Bogue, who directs Penn State's Women in Engineering Program. "Teachers are catering more to boys. We still meet that stereotype. When we do surveys, we ask women how good they are in computers, and they tend to underestimate how good they are in computers. It's a cultural thing. What we're trying to do in many ways is make sure the women have the same benefits the men have gotten, one way or another."

Corporate recruiters also come to cam-pus at the beginning of the school year, while the engineering students' parents are still there helping them unpack. "We have these industry people on a panel telling them how much these kids are going to make when they get out, and it's usually more than the parents are making," Bogue said. That way, parents are less likely to acquiesce when their daughters call home wanting to get out of the program when things get tough.

"To girls, they would always say, 'You poor girl, why don't you change your ma-jor, ' while with the guys, it's like, 'Just suck it up.' Now the parent understands the stakes." (But women leave engineering at a rate higher than men; only about 40 per-cent who start a degree complete it.)

Other engineering schools are starting special women's programs, from a Lego summer camp for girls run by Tufts University to the "House of the Future" inter-active model aimed at attracting women to the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering, which also sponsors a "take-apart- the-toaster day" each year for girls from local schools. Cornell has a program office devoted to recruiting and retaining women engineering students.

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where women make up only 23 percent of all undergraduates, a new program this year called Women on Women's Issues uses "girls' nights out" to bring together women students, faculty, staff and alumnae, including female executives in science fields. Lizabeth Schlemer, a lecturer at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, is building a database of successful women in science and engineering, including biographies and contact information. Mount Holyoke, another all-women college, continues to offer a joint five-year engineering degree with Dartmouth.

 
  Professor Borjana Mikic is leaving the University of Virginia to help "build a new undergraduate engineering program from scratch" at Smith.  
"Many, many more schools are paying attention to women," said Jane Daniels, director of the Women in Engineering Program at Purdue, which in 1969 became the first university to address the issue. Purdue now has 5,000 women graduates who work in engineering fields, and who it uses as a support network for new and prospective students. "I think they realize the obstacles young girls face, that nobody is there encouraging them," said Daniels. "We still in this day and age have girls come in and tell us, my counselor told me it was ridiculous for me even to consider engineering as a career."

Smith had offered a dual degree pro-gram with the engineering school at the University of Massachusetts from 1976 until 1991, and with Dartmouth beginning last year. Since 1985, it also had had an engineering minor. Then, in 1975, a new president, Ruth J. Simmons, challenged the campus to consider what Smith ought to become in the coming decades.

"For a moment we were able to forget how much it would cost. We thought about the future," said physics professor Malgorzata Pfabe. Among the suggestions that came back to Simmons: that Smith should place more of an emphasis on cognitive science, biomolecular structure, neuroscience, biophysics, landscape studies- and engineering. Pfabe was among the members of the science faculty who met with the new president to push for engineering. Having served on the presidential search committee, she said, "I could anticipate her reaction. She was very supportive."

An outside team-the dean of engineering from Princeton, and a professor from Swarthmore, which, with Trinity of Connecticut, was one of only two top liberal arts schools that offered engineering was invited to make recommendations, and by 1998 Smith's new engineering major seemed assured.



But there was resistance from a surprising source: some of the non-science faculty. Beside concerns about the cost of a new program at a time when financial resources were strained, "there was an issue of the tradition of a liberal arts college, and whether engineering really belonged to the liberal arts," remembered Pfabe. "There were voices asking, 'Are we going to become a vocational school?'"

Her answer: "It is to some extent an obvious thing. Smith, in my opinion, needs engineering because having people who can think quantitatively, other people learn from that, too. If I say I don't know anything about English literature or history, people would look at me and say, 'She's not well-educated.' But when you say you don't want to do math and physics, they smile as if that's OK and understandable."

 
  "If they're going to treat me like a queen because I'm a girl, I'll take it," says engineering student Simone Koo, shown in front of the Smith College library.  
The backers of the engineering major carefully built their case. They presented their plans at faculty meetings, complete with testimony from students who sup-ported the idea. They promised to make classroom space available in a proposed new engineering building, and offered high-tech expertise to other departments.

"From the beginning, the idea was to keep everyone involved. The seeds were well-laid and carefully tended. It was sort of like an engineering project: There was a lot of planning, a lot of research, a lot of sharing of ideas and drafting a plan," said Dominique Thiebaut, a computer science professor who supported engineering. "It became obvious to many faculty members that they were going to profit from engineering by having collaborations, and this building where other classes could be taught," Pfabe said.

When it finally came up for a vote, the major was approved unanimously. Its sup-porters retired to Pfabe's house off campus and had "I don't know how many bottles of wine to celebrate," she said.

Soon trustees were lavishing $12.5 million on what was to be called the Picker Engineering Program, named for an alumna and her husband who gave $5 million to endow it. Its new seal showed a lighthouse an image some women at the school grumble is both inappropriately phallic, and old-fashioned-and a suspension bridge, meant to represent the link between the sciences and the humanities.

A temporary building quickly went up, sheathed in green corrugated metal that stands out on the brick-and-ivy campus and looks remarkably like the famous left-field wall at Boston's Fenway Park. Inevitably, it was quickly nicknamed the Green Monster. Inside, the facilities are state-of-the-art, the rooms filled with more donated computers, printers and other electronic equipment than are piled up in many warehouse stores.

Manufacturers' tags still hang from the chairs, and the wires and conduits have been left exposed by the architect. The faculty is housed on the upper level of the nearby faculty club, where the smell of lunch wafts into Grasso's office. Two more professors are expected to be added, both of them women; added to him, Grasso jokes, they will give Smith the highest proportion of female engineering faculty in the country.

One, Borjana Mikic, the daughter of a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will move to Smith from the University of Virginia, attracted, she said, by "the opportunity to build a brand new undergraduate engineering program from scratch." She added, "The least of it is being in an all-women's college, although I find that very intriguing and I'm very excited about it."

Mikic says that, even more than the prospect of training women, she was drawn to the idea of requiring engineers to take non-engineering courses. "I realized a few years ago that the right environment for me to be in was a liberal arts school. Then I realized, boy, was I in the wrong field to do that."

Students seem to like this, too. Even without a track record, Smith's new engineering program managed to bring in 107 applicants, by relying on newspaper cover-age and word of mouth, and by buying lists of girls who won science or math com-petitions. Sixty of the applicants (56 percent) were admitted; 19 of those (32 percent) enrolled. The college admits 53 percent of applicants overall, and 39 per-cent accept its offer.

It's still a modest start. Engineering continues to take up less than two pages in Smith's 422-page catalogue of courses. The program must graduate its first class before it can seek accreditation. (Degrees awarded before then are expected to be accredited retroactively. The students don't seem to be worried. "Who's going to say, 'Oh, you only got a degree from Smith?'" said one, Meghan Taugher.)

Grasso and others say the problems dogging engineering are bigger than Smith can solve.

"Younger girls still are not encouraged to pursue math and science, and a lot of companies have not come to grips with family issues" such as maternity leave and subsidizing day care, he said.

"We have to work to change the image of engineering," Pfabe said. "Many changes have to be made, not only in education, but in society. Many women still have to choose between a family and a professional career. These problems have been solved in poorer countries. Why can't we solve them?"

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