Engineering is a notoriously male-dominated field but one major university is offering some hope that could change someday.
This spring, Dartmouth University became the first national research university to graduate more women than men from its undergraduate engineering program. Of the 119 graduates from the engineering school, 64 were women, or 54% of its class of 2016. After economics and government, engineering is the university’s third-most popular major.
The Big Green doesn’t go out of its way to attract more women, says Joseph J. Helble, dean of Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering. Instead, it encourages all students ”to see engineering broadly, as a collaborative enterprise focused on solving real-world challenges,” he says. The best way to do that is to build a curriculum that emphasizes the importance of the liberal arts in an engineering education—and vice versa—to make it more accessible to everyone.
Still, the school has recognized women could benefit from additional backing. In 1990, Dartmouth’s Women in Science Project program was launched to support women doing hands-on research by offering mentorship. The New Hampshire university hopes that more women will venture into the field if there are strong female role models. The Ivy League school’s core engineering faculty is almost 19% female—higher than the 15.7% reported nationally by the American Society of Engineering Association (ASEE).
(Although a female majority engineering class is a first for any major university, Harvey Mudd College, an engineering, science, and math college, also achieved a female majority landmark in 2014, when women made up 56% of its graduating class.)
Out of all occupations in the US, engineering has the lowest percentage of female workers. In 2004, just over 10% of engineers were women, according to the National Science Foundation. Nine years later, in 2013, that number was still just 11.7%.
Moreover, most female engineers end up pursuing careers in social sciences and medicine, with hardly any going into mechanical engineering. The same trend is happening at the university levels. While about 20% of all undergraduate engineering degrees in the US were awarded to women in 2015, around 40% of graduates in environmental, biomedical, and biological and agricultural engineering were female. By comparison, women accounted for only 11% of computer engineering graduates, and less than 15% of the graduating class in mechanical and aerospace engineering.