September 10, 2003

Women in Engineering Face Unique Problems

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Stereotypes about engineers abound, but beyond the preconceived notions of brilliant but anti-social computer geniuses, there is one characteristic that defines most undergraduate engineers at Cornell — almost 75 percent of them are men.

Today, about 200 freshman women trek from North Campus to the College of Engineering. They make up 28 percent of the 734-student freshman class, placing Cornell above the national average of 20 percent female undergraduates in engineering schools. But the question remains: why don’t more women want to be engineers?

“I think part of it is probably the image of the profession as a whole,” said Krishna Athreya, director of women’s programs in engineering. “It is not very well understood that engineering is a profession where you indeed give back significantly to society … I think women, more than men, are socialized to be givers and it’s important to them to feel like what they do is benefiting humanity.”

Christine Shoemaker, the Joseph P. Ripley Professor of Engineering, paved the way for women in engineering at Cornell when she became the first woman in the college to be given tenure in 1979, and the first woman to be made a full professor in 1985. She said that especially early in her career being the only female was “tough” and she felt isolated without other women faculty as role models.

“There were times when I have suspected I have been discriminated against because I was a woman, but I was never really sure that was the case,” Shoemaker said. “The uncertainty of not knowing whether discrimination played a role early in my professional interactions was certainly unsettling and demoralizing at times.”

During her career at Cornell, Shoemaker has seen improvement in attitudes toward women engineers, and female students studying engineering today feel that they are treated equally.

“I’ve never had anyone, a peer or a professor, treat me differently or expect less of me because I was a woman,” said Christina Tavoularis grad, in her third year of studying electrical engineering. “I think myself to be lucky, but I think that’s how it should be.”

Female students in undergraduate classes also feel that they are treated fairly.

“Everyone here seems to give you the same level of respect, said Jennifer Talotta ’03, co-president of the Society for Women Engineers (SWE). “I think that it’s just becoming more acceptable.”

Today, 13 percent of the engineering faculty and 21 percent of grad students are female.

To increase these numbers, Cornell has implemented programs specifically designed to recruit female engineering students and enable them to find female role models, establish connections for career networking and flourish in the engineering school once they arrive at Cornell.

These programs include the CURIE Academy, a week-long engineering immersion for female high school students, Expand Your Horizons, an event for high school students interested in math and science and the SWE.

“For those women who have an aptitude for engineering, it is important that we remove obstacles and facilitate their ability to pursue their full potential,” Shoemaker said. “There has been a huge change in the attitudes of faculty and students toward women in engineering since I first came to Cornell [in 1972]. The fact that there have been a lot of highly competent, very successful women engineers here has, I think, eliminated many of the prejudices.”

Archived article by Katy Bishop