womenengineers

Assistant Dean of Reasearch Kathleen Stebe operates the Stebe Lab, which has seen a peak number of women researchers this year | Courtesy of Dean Stebe

Among freshmen traversing the Engineering Quadrangle and hustling to introductory math classes, roughly four out of 10 are women.

This year, women made up more than 40 percent of the Engineering Class of 2019, marking an all-time high for Penn. While the national average of incoming women in undergrad is around 20 percent, women make up approximately 33 percent of the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s incoming class each year. The numbers only become more relevant as newer classes come in.

As the deadline for regular decision approaches for the Class of 2020, Penn female engineers shared their experiences at Penn and discuss the past, present and future of the engineering climate for women.

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Wharton and Engineering senior Emily Chen began her transition into the Engineering School with a pre-orientation program run by Advancing Women in Engineering, a Penn-specific program that aims to provide resources, support and opportunities to women in SEAS.

Her experience in the program was so positive that she came back in her sophomore year as a student leader.

“I had really enjoyed the program. I thought that it was really helpful ... and I met some of my closest friends through the pre-orientation program so being able to be involved in that process for other students was a really rewarding experience,” Chen said.

The engineering core courses are similar across engineering disciplines so there is a high chance that a student will have class with many of the same people. Because of this, Chen said, the program allowed her to quickly find a community of her own within Penn Engineering early on.

Despite the unequal ratio of males to females in the classroom, Chen said that she hasn’t felt discouraged or intimidated by the field. Coming from a family of engineers, she developed a love of STEM at an early age and was able to learn about what exactly a career in engineering would entail. Because of the environment that she grew up in, she didn’t see her gender as something that prevented her from pursuing a field that she loved.

Still, some students feel that women who don’t come from backgrounds where being a female in engineering is common may experience more difficulty — for example, they may feel a disconnect with Penn students who haven’t ever been the “token female engineer.”

Penn provides various resources and support groups, such as the Society of Women Engineers and Women in Computer Science, to help incoming freshmen acclimate to the engineering environment and allow female engineers to meet each other and connect. Penn also provides other support groups for minorities and students who are the first to attend college in their families.

At Penn, Chen said that the mentality of seeing a woman in engineering as completely normal is evident as well.

“A lot of my female engineering friends hold leadership roles within the School of Engineering, and whenever you go to something like the dean’s reception at the end of the year where they invite all the School of Engineering club leaders, a large percentage of the people in attendance are female,” said Chen, who herself is president of the Penn chapter of SWE. “That just speaks to the strong female leadership that we have in the School of Engineering at Penn.”

Still, one thing she said could improve is the the ratio of male to female faculty in engineering. Only 24 of Penn’s 163 engineering faculty members are women.

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As an Engineering senior and teaching assistant, Allison Higgins experiences Penn Engineering from both the learning and teaching sides.

Higgins, who always had a passion for math, was inspired to consider an engineering major by her high school counselor. Although she wasn’t necessarily interested in becoming a professional engineer, she did some research and was drawn to the engineering curriculum because of its approach to problem solving and the usefulness of having a technical background.

She is currently a TA for an engineering economics class that she took as a sophomore. Higgins said that she never felt her students treated her differently because of her gender. However, she has noticed that most of her students are male, a trend she attributed to the fact that the class is cross-listed as a graduate and undergraduate class, and graduate classes tend to be more male-dominated.

The discrepancy between the numbers of graduate-level female and male engineering students relates to the discrepancy in the faculty. Both Higgins and Chen have noted that they have had few, if any, engineering professors, which they agreed could be discouraging to some female students.

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But there is still hope for increasing women in faculty. Women who don’t start out as engineers can still be attracted to the field — Deputy Dean for Research Kathleen Stebe is proof.

Stebe didn’t start out as an engineer — she first planned on majoring in French and graduated as an economics major. However, in an unexpected turn of events, she discovered her passion for engineering.

Stebe saw a connection in the fields: their emphasis on creativity. The ability to practically apply theoretical models in creative ways attracted her to the field like a magnet.

Although Stebe said that women have made great strides in STEM fields since her time in school, she still believes there is progress to be made. But she said that Penn is actively making the effort to support women in the field and increase the rate at which women pursue graduate studies. She pointed to AWE, workshops for postdoctoral students, recruitment efforts for more female faculty and other outreach initiatives.

Stebe also runs Stebe Lab, which saw a peak number of women researchers this year.

“When a group starts to feel like they belong in a place, they recruit each other,” Stebe said.

Stebe added that another way to increase women pursuing higher level graduate degrees in STEM is to provide more information on career options, how to go about developing research projects and showing students real problems that engineers face.

She likened the math and science behind engineering to the grammar and vocabulary lists in the French language. Similar to the way a language isn’t just its grammar rules and vocabulary — it’s the literature, culture and application of the language — engineering is more than its prerequisites. The key is to get that information out to young people and young women.

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