“Who wouldn’t want to be a woman engineer?” Chairwoman of Computer and Information Science Susan Davidson asked.
While males dominate the School of Engineering and Applied Science in terms of both students and faculty, Engineering women still have a strong presence at the school.
There are currently 531 women in the undergraduate division of the Engineering school, out of about 1,625 students altogether, making up 32.7 percent of the school’s population. These numbers have remained fairly consistent over the past few years, according to Michele Grab, director of Advancing Women in Engineering, a program designed to recruit, retain and promote women in Penn Engineering.
But while these numbers seem fairly low, they are still higher than the national average of 19 percent, according to Grab.
“It’s something we are definitely proud of, especially as the national average is nothing to write home about,” she said.
Recruiting women is often a challenge for the Engineering School.
“Girls sometimes have a weird stigma about becoming an engineer, like it’s something unusual,” Engineering junior Haarika Kamani said. “We need to encourage more girls to get into these fields.”
Grab explained that Penn’s recruitment efforts target two different groups of students. The first group is a small population of women who are already interested in engineering. The task here is “to convince them to apply to Penn,” Grab said. The second group is made up of students who are strong in math and science but do not consider engineering as a career path.
One recent effort to target this second group was AWE’s annual program for guidance counselors and teachers to encourage high school women to get involved in computer science.
Other recruitment efforts include Penn GEMS — a week-long day camp for middle school girls — a High School Day for Girls to encourage sophomores and juniors in high school to study computer science and a Sleeping Bag Weekend for prospective Penn engineers to visit the University.
“[These recruitment efforts are] creating an excitement about the new face of engineering and sense of community for the terrific women we have in our programs,” Davidson said.
Several organizations at the Engineering School specifically target female students.
AWE, launched in 2007, is run by a faculty committee and a student advisory board. The organization hosts everything from outreach programs for children to a preorientation program before New Student Orientation for incoming freshmen. It also holds academic and social programs throughout the year, including dinners with professors and study breaks.
AWE often works with Penn’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, a national nonprofit service organization. SWE’s Penn chapter is run by students in the Engineering School and also holds both academically oriented and social events for its members throughout the year.
SWE recently raised over $5000 through participation in the recent national SWE “Stilettos to Steel Toes” scholarship essay contest sponsored by Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company.
While there are 400 students on the group’s mailing list, about 100 attend at least one event a year, according to Engineering junior and SWE President Sheetal Rajagopal.
Rajagopal has been involved in the organization since she was elected the freshman representative in 2008 after meeting some of its leaders during the AWE preorientation program.
Rajagopal chose Penn specifically because it is what she called a “nontraditional engineering school.”
“There are so many resources for what I want to do, and I knew that whatever I decided to do here, I would have the resources to become successful,” she said. “There are groups like SWE and AWE at Penn that give female students the resources they need,” Rajagopal said.
But not all female students at Penn feel the need to be involved in these organizations.
Kamani said that she does not attend their events. While she said she is not “avoiding them specifically,” she sees them as being more “social.”
“Events like these would help me with networking, but not help me as a woman because I’m underrepresented,” she said.
Rajagopal and Kamani both said that they do not necessarily need to work harder because they form part of a minority in the engineering field.
“It’s different at Penn,” Rajagopal said of the inclusive culture of the school. “But that changes a lot when you go into the workforce, and I’m really aware of that.”
For example, one career option that is hard for female engineers to attain is to become a professor.
At Penn, only 14 out of 107 full-time engineering professors are female, according to Grab.
Kamani has no female professors this semester in her engineering classes. Rajagopal has two, which she “was really surprised about” for being a remarkably high number, she said.
But both Rajagopal and Kamani stressed that a degree in engineering, especially a degree from Penn, can still be used to go into a wide range of careers.
“At other schools, most people will go into traditional engineering companies and get engineering higher-level degrees,” Rajagopal said. “[But] Penn engineers will go into law, medicine, business.”
Kamani is focusing on bioengineering because it is something “very practical,” she said.
“It’s important to reinforce that studying engineering, especially as a woman, opens so many doors for you career-wise,” Rajagopal said.
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