With women making up only 20 percent of engineering students nationwide, on average, females are at a statistical disadvantage when it comes to finding mentors — and for those who have, mentorship has proven key.
There are a fair amount of women in leadership positions of prominent tech companies, but Engineering junior and computer science major Allegra Larche feels that there are fewer women role models outside the corner offices.
“When you go to a lot of these hackathons or tech conferences, you don’t see a lot of actual female coders; you would be more likely to see women in the higher ranking positions," Larche said.
Mentors provide younger women with a support system and can draw them into STEM careers, despite a pre-existing stigma that such fields are often dominated by men.
"I know a few girls who did chemical engineering that were older than me and helped me out, but not too many," Engineering junior Joanna Wollman said.
Larché believes that women are discouraged from entering STEM fields from before they enter high school, when young boys are often encouraged to play with different toys than their female peers.
“I don’t think it’s that girls are intimidated,” Larche said. “It starts when you’re young. I know guys in my computer science classes that have been playing with computers since they were seven.”
For those female engineers who have managed to find mentors, their advice has proven invaluable. Physics major and College sophomore Angela White has acquired several mentors from her science studies in high school and values their support.
“I’ve been able to ask them what it is like to be women in their field,” White said. “It helps prepare me, and [it helps] to have that support system.”
Katherine Kuchenbecker, a professor in the Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics Departments, feels that her female mentors have been instrumental in helping her on her path to professorship.
“As an undergrad, I looked up to strong women TAs and that helped inspire me to become a professor,” Kuchenbecker said, adding that during her time at Stanford University, she was mentored by the only female professor in mechanical engineering and continues to value her advice.
“There is not a lot of communication about what an engineer really is,” President of the Society of Women Engineers Elizabeth Bierman said. “Women enter the workforce with the goal of helping people, but they don’t make that correlation.”
However, the lack of female mentors in certain engineering positions may be declining. At Penn, women make up 34 percent of the Engineering Class of 2017, which is much higher than the national average of 20 percent. In recent years, the number of female engineering faculty has risen to 31.5 percent.
Now that more people are aware of the gender gap, efforts are being made to bolster mentorship and show younger female students what a career in STEM could offer.
Wollman hopes that increased awareness will bring changes to how science and technology are introduced to younger children and explains that "there are some companies that are making girl versions of Legos to try and stimulate interest at an early age.”
To both recruit and retain women in this field, Penn has created the Advancing Women in Engineering program, which has established several initiatives, including the Penn Girls in Engineering summer camp for children in the Philadelphia area to learn about the field.
White is certainly not letting any gender gap get in the way of her goals. “I want to work for NASA,” she said. “I can help be a part in bringing more women to the field.”
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