I may teach engineering, but I don’t have an engineering degree. This usually comes as a surprise, but it shouldn’t. The climate of engineering programs across the nation still has a long way to go to welcome and support non-male students. One of my goals in the classroom is to let my students know about the struggles I had in college to fit in to the engineering culture, why I decided to change my major, and in the end, why I still encourage my non-male students to pursue a degree in engineering.
I remember the day I got my acceptance letter to the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. More impressive, I was accepted into their competitive engineering program. Neither of my parents finished their college education, so this was definitely a big deal for our family. Most of my friends with similar after school activities, volunteer hours, and GPAs were waitlisted, so it was even more incredible that I was accepted.
Along with the acceptance letter, the school included demographics of the students they accepted. I was one of 200 women accepted to their 1000 student engineering school. Twenty percent. I couldn’t help but feel like they probably accepted most of the women who had applied, but were competitive when it came to the men they accepted. I did my best to pick myself up. Assured myself that I had a better than average ACT score and GPA in comparison to the average. It was challenging to shake the feeling that there would be such a disproportionate representation of women in the program.
Part of the reason I applied to the engineering school was because it felt a little counter-culture. I knew I was a woman who won awards in state art competitions, could fix mechanical problems lickety-split, and enjoyed going to concerts with heavy black eyeliner. Attaining a degree in a field that is so buttoned-up sounded a like a challenge itself, so I was game. I knew I could do this.
In comes freshman year. Filled with weed out classes. The first year where I finally had time to find myself without the social or parental pressures of small-town living. While I lived on a floor for engineering majors, only half of one corridor housed the women engineering majors. The rest of the floor inhabited by men. I still found myself spending more time with guys than gals, a carryover from high school perhaps. Oftentimes, I felt like I didn’t fit in with the women on my floor, I wasn’t terribly interested in going to frat parties, but I wasn’t nerdy enough to play the newest Halo release. I wanted to go to concerts, play music, get some new piercings.
The real turning point was two-fold: intro-physics for engineering majors meets watching other hoards of biology majors congregate, laugh, and have fun together. A couple of times I tried to find groups of people to study physics with. I left feeling like the study-sessions turned into competitions about who knew more about the content. I was there to get help, not to show off how much, or little, I knew about formulas for magnetism and acceleration. Enrolled in Calculus 1, I was in a lower math level than many of my peers. When I would sit down to study, I would again be one of the only women. I couldn’t help but feel the men I was trying to study with were withholding information from me, knowing if they could score higher than one more person, that could mean they made the B cut-off on the bell-curve. I didn’t feel like I had the support I was looking for.
On campus, the students who were seeking any sort of biological science degree, always seemed to be walking around together, laughing, wearing the same tie-dyed t-shirts. They actually seemed to enjoy being with each other. I never saw this camaraderie with the engineers.
After a year of struggling with physics, feeling like I didn’t fit in, and having more microaggressions than I could handle, I changed majors. I decided I could do the most challenging biology major and still feel like I was pushing myself, but with support of my peers I didn’t feel I had in engineering. By the time I hit my junior year, I couldn’t believe how much happier I was with my coursework. It was still super hard, but I had a diverse group of people I could study with, other students would chat with me about problems during class-breaks, and I found a research position in a lab.
The 5 Steps to Succeed in an Engineering Program
There are a few things I could’ve done better to stick it out with engineering. I didn’t know it at the time, but I really needed some better support systems, especially support where my feminism was taken into account. Because I never talked about it growing up, I wasn’t aware enough to know about microaggressions, or the importance of feeling supported by my peers. Some things I wish I had done more of:
1. Attend at least 3 Society of Women Engineers meetings.
I attended one, and felt to awkward to make a go at introducing myself to other people there. I think if I had pushed through and gone to more than one, I could’ve mustered up the social prowess to make meaningful conversation.
2. Take a Gender, Women, and Sexuality class during freshman year.
I waited until my senior year, spring semester to take one of these intro courses, and had I taken it earlier, I think I would’ve minored in it. I felt supported, validated in these deep-rooted feelings I had, and found some serious feminism for the first time in my life.
3. Find at least 2 other students groups that support FTW’s in science.
I joined plenty of clubs, but none of them talked about inequities in science and engineering. Coming from a small-town and a very conservative family, I figured I could just tough it out being a woman in science. I didn’t realize how important it would be for me to find another group of strong capable humans to bond over inequities, and I regret not finding these groups sooner.
4. Find faculty members and counselors who want me to stay in engineering.
I went to an enormous university; I was just a number. When I went in to talk with my counselor for the first time to switch majors, the discussion about exiting engineering went something like this: “I’d like to change majors out of the engineering school and into the biology school” “Sounds good.” There was no discourse, no mention of the disparity of FTW’s in engineering, no discussion of how many more women enter biological science than engineering, no desire to close the gap. It was just getting through the motions to let another woman get out of engineering.
5. Get into more informational interviews with people in the field.
Find people who look/feel like you if possible. Talking with more FTW engineers in multiple fields would’ve been helpful for me. I did one day of shadowing with a family friend in chemical engineering, which was “good enough” for me to pursue a degree in it. I wish I had more background information on what was out there.
All of this information is definitely just based on my experiences and inability to know how to work a university-level system. However, I am sure I’m not alone in my experiences. There are plenty of FTW’s who crush their engineering degrees. We know this because we see them in the workforce, but it’s still not equitable.
As a high-school engineering teacher, I see similar demographics in our program. About 30% of our students identify as FTW. Hopefully the experience in my classroom empowers them to complete an engineering degree. I know that the biggest barriers for getting more FTW’s in engineering tends to be more about environmental and social factors rather than ability (AAUW, 2010). The more I can do to be a good role model, encourage the FTW’s in my classroom to pursue a degree in engineering, give them tools and resources to find outside support, and to help them call out inequities and microaggressions, the more successful I hope they will be in the end.
I would love to hear about your experiences in the engineering field. I have a number of friends who have had issues in the workplace post-grad, but had fine experiences in college. What advice would you offer to FTW’s thinking about going to school for engineering? How would you suggest they approach the program in a way that is supportive of their goals? Please share your comments below or share your story here.