November 2, 2007

Cornell Works to Attract Women Engineers

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While other schools struggle to attract female engineering students and faculty, Cornell is setting itself apart from the crowd by making female recruits one of its top priorities. However, much work needs to be done if Cornell wants to remain at the top of the field.
According to the Undergraduate Admissions Office, of the 713 freshmen, only 31 percent are women. Yet this number is seen as evidence that the college is moving in the right direction. In 2004, only 26 percent of entering freshmen were female.
This increase in part can be attributed to the creation of the Diversity Programs for Engineering, which aims to improve the climate for underrepresented minorities, women students and faculty along with their recruitment and retention.
Though the definition diversity is often elusive, the College of Engineering considers diversity a top priority because it facilitates the growth of new ideas and discoveries. These are in part fueled by different perspectives and experiences, which allow for the comparison and combination of ideas to produce better end results.
Currently, there are 27 women faculty on the engineering staff. The hope is that with a grant from the National Science Foundation, the University will be able to increase the number of women faculty to at least 20 percent in the departments of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In the three years since the programs’ inception, the number of female faculty members has already grown from 4 to 7 percent of the entire staff.
According to Michelle Zheng ’10, having female faculty members is an integral part of her experience. As a female chemical engineering major, she believes having a diverse range of faculty is more conducive to different learning styles.
“For me, female faculties are able to explain theories and concepts in a way that makes sense. That is not to say male faculty can’t do the same, but it’s good to have options and a different view.”
According to a 2004 report of the National Science Foundation, women held more bachelor’s degrees than men overall, but in the field of science and engineering, they represented only 40.5 percent. The NSF also revealed that women only account for 24.7 percent of science and engineering occupations in 2004.
Co-president of the Society for Women Engineers Jenna Rea ’08 said, “There is still a glass ceiling where women make 75 cents to every dollar a man makes, and having kids definitely places a burden on a woman, as she has to choose between a demanding career and a family.”
These are challenges that most women face when breaking into a field that is traditionally dominated by men, admits Zellman Warhaft, associate dean for diversity.
But he added that the environment for women is much healthier than it was even a few years ago. He said the search committee is actively seeking out minorities and women faculty searches using a variety of methods to target these populations.
Co-President of SWE Wanling Yih ’08 said, “As an electrical engineer, I’ll sometimes walk into a room of 20 and be the only girl, but I don’t get treated any differently.”
Along the same lines, Rea added that when it comes to job interviews, recruiters are no less stringent on standards for women. “It doesn’t make sense for a recruiter to hire someone simply based on their gender if she’s just going to sit around. We are held to the same standards as men.”
Liz Corson ’09, SWE director for outreach, said, “All the numbers point out that women are equally as competent as men in math and science but that girls are hearing the wrong messages. A study by WGBH Boston found that what girls want is something that will make them happy, flexible, paid well and will make a difference in the world.
To combat these findings, SWE has an active outreach program with the intent of attracting girls from the onset of high school to make engineering seem like a viable option. One way this is done is through a weeklong summer course called the CURIE Program which has various workshops and hands-on experimentation to get girls hooked on science.
Barbara Wang ’10 feels that SWE has been effective. “I feel like SWE has a really big presence on campus, and I’ve never felt disadvantaged being a girl in engineering. Being a part of SWE has allowed me to be more informed about company info sessions and get involved in outreach events to encourage young girls to consider engineering.”
In the last month, the University has received several awards honoring their efforts to create an equal opportunity environment that promotes diversity in faculty and students, including the prestigious Department of Labor Exemplary Voluntary Efforts award.
Last Saturday, SWE won the 1st place in the Outstanding Collegiate Section Competition at the 2007 SWE National Conference held in Nashville, Tenn. in recognizing their efforts to promote females in science and leadership roles.