Home > Recruit, Retain!, Stereotypes We Know And Love, Why There Are No Women in Science > Women Swarm Nation’s Technical Campuses

Women Swarm Nation’s Technical Campuses

By way of the LA Times, we learn that women are flocking in droves to Caltech this year:

According to preliminary figures, 87 women are entering a freshman class of [235] students in September. That 37% share is Caltech’s highest since it began admitting undergraduate women in 1970, when pioneering females comprised 14% of the entering class.

Has Caltech gone soft and squishy? Though they protest that standards were not lowered, the LA Times does not seem convinced.

Although Caltech insists that it did not lower its notoriously tough admission standards or practice affirmative action for women, the school said it more actively and shrewdly recruited women this year.

No! Not more actively and shrewdly recruiting women! The horror! Why, wastecans all over campus will be full of used menstrual pads and tampons! Gahhhh!!!! What if all those women start cycling together? HELP!


Well, before we celebrate this huge victory, we should pause to note the following:

Six years ago, women made up about 36% of freshmen, but that dropped to as low as 28.5% last year.

So, uh, yeah – woo hoo for that 37% this year! Maybe Caltech’s new recruiting slogan can be: “Caltech: Now just as good as we were half a decade ago!”
But to be fair, Caltech’s not the only one in this boat. An article in Inside Higher Ed notes that a number of colleges share this characteristic of experiencing “a recent dip in female enrollment, followed by a big boost”.
Confusingly, the article is titled “Enrollment Surge For Women”, not “Women Regain Recent Losses In Enrollments”. Perhaps they did not have enough electrons available for the longer title?
Or perhaps “Enrollment Surge for Women” fits better with Inside Higher Ed’s lead into the article:

As concern has grown about declining enrollments of men generally in higher education…

Gasp! And now they’re threatening to take over the technical universities, too! Gentlemen, I say, defend your wastecans!
The two articles discuss how some elite institutions are using specialized recruiting techniques to shore up or improve their recruitment of women into science and engineering disciplines. This information is presented as if women are experiencing a nationwide surge in enrollments in these disciplines, when in reality, according to data presented by Leah Jamieson (Purdue’s dean of engineering) at the 2007 WEPAN conference, enrollment of women in engineering peaked at around 20% in 1999 and has declined since then to about 18% (source: Eng. Workforce Commission/NSF). (Jamieson’s WEPAN powerpoint presentation is downloadable here.)
There’s something else in these articles that disturbs me. For some time now the mantra of recruiting women into science and engineering has been that we must appeal to women’s special interests in helping others and giving back to society – which is not necessarily a bad thing to do in general in recruiting anyone to science and engineering. Engineering in particular is a profession meant to improve the condition of humankind. The problem, however, is that somehow women seem to end up predominantly in certain types of science and engineering – biology and biomedical engineering, for example. Or environmental and industrial engineering. Inside Higher Ed tells us:

The reasons may be multiple and complex, such as the idea that women are more likely than men to prefer studying subjects that can be used to improve society (which could very well be subjective) and feelings of intimidation about the “harder” sciences — physics or mechanical engineering.

But what subjects can be used “to improve society”? In Jamieson’s WEPAN lecture, she presented results of a survey of boys and girls, asking how appealing they found various topics in engineering. On twelve topics, the level of appeal was essentially similar between boys and girls. These topics were:

  • iPod
  • growing organs for transplant
  • making homes safer
  • machines that allow people to see
  • building cars that run on alternative fuels
  • protecting the water supply
  • wind power
  • creating more advanced MRI machines to diagnose health problems
  • solar energy
  • making cars safer
  • DNA testing
  • developing new foods

Eleven other topics differed in appeal to boys and girls by 5 or more percentage points. Those appealing more to boys were:

  • space exploration (45% to 35%)
  • smart traffic solutions (28% to 21%)
  • turning deserts into farmlands (25% to 18%)
  • missile defense systems (30% to 19%)
  • designing the world’s fastest plane (31% to 20%)
  • making smaller, faster computer (34% to 26%)
  • high-definition television (28% to 21%)
  • designing video games (38% to 29%)

Those appealing more to girls were:

  • protecting the rain forest (45% to 40%)
  • using DNA evidence to solve crimes (50% to 43%)
  • reducing air pollution (38% to 33%)

What can one conclude from this? First, even the topics that girls find least appealing are still appealing to nearly 20% of girls – even designing missile defense systems has its fans among the girls! It won’t do to make sweeping conclusions about girls wanting to “improve society” – or, perhaps, to make sweeping conclusions about what girls define as improving society. One girl’s improving society by making homes safer is another girl’s designing missile defense systems. Maybe she thinks designing missile defense systems is making homes safer.
Second, there are just as many similarities as differences between boys and girls. And interestingly, many of the interests that boys and girls share are in the areas that are supposed to be of more interest to girls – areas aligned with health care, or obvious benefits to society.
One may be tempted to look at the list of items that are more appealing to boys and say “well, of course – boys like video games, technology, space, and things that go fast”. But we would be remiss not to note that substantial percentages of girls are also interested in these things. And if we are designing recruiting strategies that don’t take into account sparking girls’ interests in these topics, then we may just be fostering stereotypes about what girls are interested in, shunting them into biology, biomedical engineering, industrial engineering, environmental engineering, and away from the physical sciences and mechanical and electrical engineering. Then we conclude “that’s what girls choose, that’s what they’re interested in. Let’s make sure our recruiting strategies reflect their interests!” A nice, compact circle.
Maybe we think girls have to have a reason to love technology and science. It isn’t seemly for them to just love it, just because. It’s okay to love biology and biomedical engineering because they can “improve society” with those disciplines, and girls are supposed to improve society, that’s what girls and women do, right? Boys can love physics and mechanical engineering because boys are supposed to love shiny toys and fast cars. They don’t need a reason for their infatuation. They are allowed to love technology and science for the mere intellectual pleasure of it.
If recruiting girls into engineering with the mantra of “you can improve society with engineering” works, then okay, I’m all for it. But only if “improving society” encompasses the whole of science and engineering, not if “improving society” is used to ghettoize women in certain engineering and science professions. If “improving society” is truly important in career decisions of young women, then we need to stop shrugging our shoulders and saying “well, they just all want the biological-related majors” and start doing a better job of selling all our disciplines as to how they let us improve society. And while we’re at it, let’s stop shortchanging boys, as if these types of motivations are unimportant to them, or not worthwhile cultivating in them.

  1. travc
    August 8, 2007 at 7:59 pm

    Well, when I was a CIT undergrad, the “sophisticated” methods of recruiting females pretty much boiled down to getting alums to contact prospects and paying for them to fly out and visit campus.
    The alum thing could and should be expanded a lot more. Hell, tech school alums should probably be more active in their local schools (guest lectures, career days, ect) anyway.
    Caltech (and I’m sure other schools) handle this properly IMO. Try to get more females and under-represented minorities interested in attending (and getting them to see it as a real option, including making it affordable)… but not having different admissions standards.
    That last bit is a little fib. CIT does have variable admissions standards… apparently smart kids from crappy backgrounds (poor, bad school, whatever) are given a bit of special attention and leeway in the admissions process. Though the overall-arching goal of the admissions process is to admit students who have a high probability of succeeding (aka graduating) and going on to make a contribution to the world irrespective of race, gender, or whatever. As it should be.

  2. August 8, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    Of course, for this kind of recruitment you would need to find alumnae who don’t tell the prefrosh about the glomming. And the study they did, back when the 36%-female class was entering, about how women’s GPAs were a tenth of a point lower than men’s. Cough.

  3. August 9, 2007 at 12:02 am

    My niece is a freshman this fall, with an intended major in the sciences–and last summer, I took her on her West Coast colleges tour, including Cal Tech. I didn’t go on the campus tour with her (who wants Auntie tagging along?), but I delivered her to and from the tour’s start/end point, and heard some the spiel, saw the informational pamphlets they gave out, all that–nothing screamed to me, “Look, we’re really trying to improve our m/f ratios this year!” I don’t think she applied there, in the end, but she liked what she heard/saw, anyway.
    Another niece just finished a Masters in geology. I hope these nieces are busy, happy scientists when my own daughter is starting to think seriously about her educational goals (she says she wants to be an “animal scientist,” now, but she’s seven, still room for plenty of change–yesterday she was all about meteors). She can turn to them for ideas and advice. And if she wants to study science in a decade, I hope there are more schools that know how to encourage and focus her interest.

  4. August 9, 2007 at 12:02 am

    My niece is a freshman this fall, with an intended major in the sciences–and last summer, I took her on her West Coast colleges tour, including Cal Tech. I didn’t go on the campus tour with her (who wants Auntie tagging along?), but I delivered her to and from the tour’s start/end point, and heard some the spiel, saw the informational pamphlets they gave out, all that–nothing screamed to me, “Look, we’re really trying to improve our m/f ratios this year!” I don’t think she applied there, in the end, but she liked what she heard/saw, anyway.
    Another niece just finished a Masters in geology. I hope these nieces are busy, happy scientists when my own daughter is starting to think seriously about her educational goals (she says she wants to be an “animal scientist,” now, but she’s seven, still room for plenty of change–yesterday she was all about meteors). She can turn to them for ideas and advice. And if she wants to study science in a decade, I hope there are more schools that know how to encourage and focus her interest.

  5. Abi
    August 9, 2007 at 1:31 am

    Here’s something that you might want to comment on: “The number of women enrolling in graduate school at Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science will reach a record 32 percent of students in the fall of 2007. By contrast, the nationwide average of women enrolled in graduate engineering hovers at around 20 percent. ”
    32 percent is certainly the largest number I have seen for women at a graduate school in engineering.

  6. absinthe
    August 9, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Since when does “recruiting more women” mean that a university “must be” lowering its academic standards (whether they are ‘fessing up to it or not). I mean, WTF???
    It also seriously pisses me off whenever I hear the media crying out about “what is the world coming too?!” when male admissions in the sciences goes down. Like the world is coming to an end if admissions to science programmes aren’t always 90% male. Because, you know, if we don’t keep it at 90% it means that institutes must be turning away well deserving males and lowering their academic standards to let those stupid females in instead. Oh yeah, and god help us all if the females actually end up scoring higher on the males in standardized testing in the sciences at the pre-college level…it must mean we have been neglecting those poor males in favour of those undeserving stupid females.
    Your comment about the trash cans hits a nerve with me… don’t even get me started on the issue of female bathrooms in physics departments I have worked/studied at. At UPenn (for instance) for two years I had to hike down three flights of stairs and over to an annex of the physics building to get to a women’s bathroom that had a total of two stalls and was constantly abjectly filthy because it was used so much. Every floor in the main physics building had two washrooms for the men. I guess they were scared that if they changed one of the bathrooms on each floor to a female bathroom it would be encouraging the women too much (plus, as you point out, there is the whole icky issue of being within even 1000 feet of a garbage can that might contain tampons, whether you actually have to look at the garbage can or not).
    Perhaps I am over-reacting because I am in a bitchy mood due to other tribulations I am dealing with today, but everything that is outlined in this blog piece supremely pisses me off.

  7. PhysioProf
    August 9, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    “If recruiting girls into engineering with the mantra of ‘you can improve society with engineering’ works, then okay, I’m all for it.”
    Are you really? It seems to me that this just reinforces the pernicious idea that women are supposed to take care of stuff, while men are entitled to just do what interests them without justification.

  8. LJG
    August 9, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    Asbsinthe, your comment reminds me…. I always found it funny that the engineering building at Pitt had women’s and men’s bathrooms on alternating floors. It was VERY obvious that at one time there were only men’s bathrooms in that building!

  9. bsci
    August 10, 2007 at 12:00 am

    I’ve always though the significantly higher ratio of women in biomedical engineering has a very simple explanation. The field is younger and there are fewer intrenched customs and opinions about what a bioengineer looks like. There is less (not zero) ingrained sexism and thus the field is more welcoming. Especially since almost any time of engineering fits in bioengineering as along as the applications are biological it can attrach people with diverse engineering interests. I think my undergrad class was 55/45 male/female. I’m sure the university was very thankful for this since the rest of the engineering deptartments were 90/10. One ChemE told a faculty member that she wanted to go to grad school and possibly pursure a career in academics and got the response that she’s of course not planning to have a family. Shockingly, she went to grad school in bioengineering instead of ChemE.
    I don’t know enough about the other female friendly engineering disciplines, but they are also relatively young.

  10. absinthe
    August 10, 2007 at 12:44 am

    The building that houses the statistics dept at the univeristy I am at now also has men and women’s bathrooms on alternate floors. Yep, it is pretty obvious women were never in that building when it was built in the 1960’s. It makes me wonder where the departmental secretaries at the time (who certainly were women) went to the washroom.
    Fermilab was apparently somewhat more gender progressive (for once) when they built the main 15 story high-rise building on site in the 1960’s because there are side-by-side men’s and women’s washrooms on each floor. A couple of years ago they extensively renovated the high-rise, and a number of the washrooms were closed. I remember one day not long after they re-opened those areas I went in to use one, and noted that they had put a urinal on the wall. I thought “jeez…that’s taking things a little far isn’t it to have interchangeable bathrooms”. I leisurely washed my hands, brushed my hair, etc, and left the washroom. Only to find out I had accidentally wandered into the men’s room…
    At least, thank god, I didn’t walk in on the spokesman of my experiment (or my supervisor) taking a whizz. As it was, the spokeperson was on his way in as I was on my way out and he said cheerily with a very big grin, “Hi Absinthe!”.
    While we are on the subject of washrooms, does anyone else out there bemoan the loss of the sitting area that pretty much all women’s washrooms used to have up until around the mid 1970’s? Having a private place to sit that was intrinsically women-only was the closest thing I ever got to having a female support group when I was an undergraduate in physics. I used to go in there and nap on the day bed, do homework, and/or chat with the other women from various departments who would come in for a sit-down.
    In the physics building at the university I am at now the sitting room annexed to the women’s washroom has couches, tables, a fridge, and a microwave (the physics building was built in the 1950’s). My husband didn’t believe that pre-1970’s women’s rooms had annexed cozy little sitting rooms until I took him in and showed him one day. He couldn’t get over it. He said the males were happy if their washroom actually had paper towels in the dispenser, and only slight amounts of urine on the floor instead of big pools. He asked when the women would be getting a home theater system in there. I told him sometime in 2008. We’d invite him to watch movies with us, but, you know…he’s male and all.

  11. August 10, 2007 at 10:59 am

    Physioprof, did you read the entire last paragraph of my post? I said I don’t have a problem with the mantra of “improving society” IF certain conditions are met. One being that we understand that ALL science and engineering majors are understood as equally applicable to improving society. Electrical engineering just as much as biomedical engineering, physics just as much as biology or social science. AND we agree that young men not be considered immune to such motivations, that we not think that inculcating such motivations in young men is somehow unnecessary.
    I happen to believe that engineering actually should be used to improve society, and that we’d be better off if engineers took that responsibility seriously, if engineers focused more on society’s real needs than, say, how to produce the coolest new shiny next generation iPod that nobody really needs. I think that the goal of “improving society” is actually a worthy one, and if this motivation matters to young women, and to members of minority groups, it is something worth elevating and expanding upon both as a means of recruiting them into the profession and improving the profession itself.
    What I am NOT for is taking that very worthwhile motivation and using it to typecast young women – to say “well of course women care about improving society because that’s the kind of stuff women care about, housekeeping and all that, and so they will probably be interested in woman-y sorts of engineering majors which must be…let’s see…ones that we consider to be less ‘hard’ and less prestigious and probably, eventually, less well-paid, because more women will be doing them.” Which, traditionally, is what happens when you see an influx of women into any field – the prestige of that area of work goes down, along with wages. And that’s precisely why I don’t want to see women tracked into specific areas of science and engineering. I don’t want them tracked into limited areas that then get “feminized” and devalued. I want everything open to them. I want the very reasonable view that we ought to use our science and engineering knowledge to improve society applied across the board.
    Sigh. Yes, yes, and I suppose pigs will fly, too.

  12. August 10, 2007 at 10:59 am

    Physioprof, did you read the entire last paragraph of my post? I said I don’t have a problem with the mantra of “improving society” IF certain conditions are met. One being that we understand that ALL science and engineering majors are understood as equally applicable to improving society. Electrical engineering just as much as biomedical engineering, physics just as much as biology or social science. AND we agree that young men not be considered immune to such motivations, that we not think that inculcating such motivations in young men is somehow unnecessary.
    I happen to believe that engineering actually should be used to improve society, and that we’d be better off if engineers took that responsibility seriously, if engineers focused more on society’s real needs than, say, how to produce the coolest new shiny next generation iPod that nobody really needs. I think that the goal of “improving society” is actually a worthy one, and if this motivation matters to young women, and to members of minority groups, it is something worth elevating and expanding upon both as a means of recruiting them into the profession and improving the profession itself.
    What I am NOT for is taking that very worthwhile motivation and using it to typecast young women – to say “well of course women care about improving society because that’s the kind of stuff women care about, housekeeping and all that, and so they will probably be interested in woman-y sorts of engineering majors which must be…let’s see…ones that we consider to be less ‘hard’ and less prestigious and probably, eventually, less well-paid, because more women will be doing them.” Which, traditionally, is what happens when you see an influx of women into any field – the prestige of that area of work goes down, along with wages. And that’s precisely why I don’t want to see women tracked into specific areas of science and engineering. I don’t want them tracked into limited areas that then get “feminized” and devalued. I want everything open to them. I want the very reasonable view that we ought to use our science and engineering knowledge to improve society applied across the board.
    Sigh. Yes, yes, and I suppose pigs will fly, too.

  13. PhysioProf
    August 10, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    “While we are on the subject of washrooms, does anyone else out there bemoan the loss of the sitting area that pretty much all women’s washrooms used to have up until around the mid 1970’s?”
    One of the complaints that one of my female colleagues has about the “old white dude” senior faculty in our department is that a lot of departmental business gets transacted informally in the men’s room. I imagine this would be even worse if the men could hang around in there on couches, instead of just talking while whizzing.
    “Physioprof, did you read the entire last paragraph of my post?”
    Now that I read it again, I see that I took that one sentence out of context. We are clearly on the same page with this.
    BTW, I wish you would go over to Aetiology blog and weigh in on this topic in the McKellar post comments. There is some dumbdudeassery going on there, with a nice veneer of cartoon evopsych.

  14. mitgrad
    August 13, 2007 at 9:28 am

    I just finished undergrad with a 50% female class, and am starting grad school with ~25% female class. Looking back, I know that I chose MIT and then Georgia Tech because I decided those schools held the best opportunity for me. In fact, I didn’t even apply to other schools.
    I came from a small high school (senior class of 20) and out of the top 5 people in our class, four were girls. The four of us went to technical or pre-medical schools and excelled. The top boy (third in the class) went to a small private university and studied computer science.
    After arriving at MIT, I noticed that the women there were split into “confident” and “doubtful.” The confident women were scattered through all the majors, and thoroughly enjoyed their chosen fields. The doubtful women concentrated themselves into biology, humanities, and management. The split was usually determined by the past: if girls had excelled in high school, they were confident in college. MIT is rough enough that there is little confidence boost throughout the four years. In fact, ~75% of MIT graduates (male and female) feel totally unprepared for the real world, even though they are among the MOST prepared. MIT has a way of beating everyone down, regardless of sex.
    So in my experience, high school was much more influential than the college recruiting process. If girls feel smart in high school, they’ll have the confidence to attend “tough” schools and go into “hard” sciences. If we want to change the universities we live in, we all need to start mentoring girls in high school.

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