Women in Engineering Center hopes to change culture within the field

The center is funded by an anonymous donation of $330,000.
Women in Engineering Center Director Kathleen Trauth and Programs Coordinator Jayme Gardner at the center's launch event Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015, in Columbia, Mo. The center hopes to promote better representation of women in engineering. (Photo courtesy of Shelby Kardell, College of Engineering)

A new program within the College of Engineering hopes to promote women’s roles in engineering and to enhance female students’ education in the college.

The Women in Engineering Center celebrated its launch with an open house event Feb. 3. The center was made possible by an anonymous donation of $330,000 and will provide female engineering students with resources and support, such as access to study sessions and career advising. Through the center, students can participate in organizations like the Mizzou Women Mentoring Women program; Alpha Omega Epsilon, an engineering sorority; and the Society of Women Engineers.

Jayme Gardner, the center’s programs coordinator, said one of the center’s goals includes assessing the climate of the college to get a handle on what the student and faculty experiences are in terms of diversity and how welcomed and supported students feel.

Out of 3,795 students enrolled in the College of Engineering in 2014, 656 were female, about 17.3 percent. Gardner said the college has seen many of its first-year female students and minority students transition from engineering, which is predominantly male, to other math-intensive fields, despite their high grade point averages.

“The problem doesn’t lie with the women,” Gardner said. “It lies with the environment they’re placed in. It’s something about what we’re doing that isn’t right. I’m excited to see that be eliminated, so that the only students we’re losing are the ones that truly wouldn’t flourish in engineering because it’s just not their interest, and not because they feel like they don’t fit in with this environment.”

According to an American Sociological Association study, women studying engineering have lower confidence levels than their male counterparts. The story attributes this issue to engineering’s association with men and masculinity, leading to differential treatment based on gender during engineering education.

Lisa Wilken, president of the Society of Women Engineers, said the new center’s initiatives could help transform the overall culture within engineering, which she said she believes is a major part of the problem.

“We’re not trying to fix our women,” Wilken said. “We’re trying to fix the attitudes towards our women. Getting the conversation going is what it’s really about.”

A large factor keeping more women from engineering is that science, technology, engineering and math fields are not often presented to young women as career options, said Kate Trauth, the center’s director and Croft associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Trauth said young women need to be able to clearly understand what it means to be an engineer. She said students should not be gripped by engineering only because they excel at math and science.

“Engineering, at its core, is about helping people,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t do a good enough job talking about that.”

Programs within the center, such as the Society of Women Engineers, a mentoring program, and AOE help serve as outreach and support in order to better explain engineering’s purposes to young students, girls and boys alike, Wilken said.

She said the SWE is especially involved in recruiting more women into the field. It previously headed the mentoring program before the founding of the Women in Engineering Center, which will now take reins of the mentorship program.

The SWE also visits middle schools to host Girl Scout Day, during which they complete projects with students and inform them about the roles of engineers.

“(The students) can look at somebody and say, ‘Oh, I can see myself in that role. I could see myself as an engineer,’” Trauth said.

Trauth’s own inspiration to become an engineer came from having six older sisters to look up to, a support system that is now replicated by the Women in Engineering Center, she said.

“I had these wonderful role models of women who were going for what they wanted. I had my own personal support network,” Trauth said. “I think it is so important that we provide that.”

She said lack of diversity in engineering can have negative consequences over time, especially because engineering is a field that requires constant creativity and innovation.

“To the extent that we are continuing to face more and more complicated problems both technically and societally,” Trauth said. “If we can broaden the scope of the individuals who are addressing these problems, I think we’ll have better results. If you ask more minds who bring different experiences to the table, I think that can just improve that creative process.”

The center also seeks to connect students with opportunities and other students to improve the community within the school, Gardner said. A major issue that needs to be addressed is lack of engagement of female students within the college, she said, which can lead to those students’ failure to see past things in which engineering is often associated: cars, planes and trains.

The center hopes to address this issue by creating new programs that will broaden the its ability to meet student needs. Gardner said the center hopes to create a student advisory board that will develop day-to-day programs and other ideas.

“They’ll give us student experience and student voice,” Gardner said.

The center also hopes to create a first-year program within the College of Engineering modeled after the Chancellor’s Leadership Class, Gardner said. She said this program will allow a select group of passionate and elite students to develop leadership skills, a plan to impact the world and connect to resources.

Gardner said the center will host career service workshops geared toward women, focusing topics like companies’ attitude toward women and minorities.

Through its programs, the center seeks to eliminate pre-existing barriers present to women in the College of Engineering and enhance students’ experience, Gardner said.

Heather Hunt, assistant professor of bioengineering and faculty advisor for MWMW, said in an email that she is excited about the center’s focus on increasing engagement of female engineering students.

“It’s great that our donors and our university have realized the potential of all of our students in engineering, and that they want to help them succeed,” she said. “I also think we have an opportunity to showcase what a coordinated effort to improve recruitment and retention of women in engineering can do for our student body and our culture.”

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