Closing the gender gap in mechanical engineering

July 31, 2017
Mary Beth O'Leary | Department of Mechanical Engineering

In 2015, comments from a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist claiming female scientists distract their male colleagues in the lab immediately led to backlash across social media. Women shared selfies going about their routine conducting research to demonstrate just how “distracting” they are. Months later, individuals around the world responded to offhand comments about a female engineer with the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer. Earlier this year, General Electric envisioned a reality in which female scientists, such as the late MIT Professor Emerita Millie Dresselhaus, are revered just as much as celebrities and athletes. 

These events reflect a wider movement to combat sexism and encourage women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The gender gap in these fields is pronounced, to be sure. In mechanical engineering, for example, only 13.2 percent of bachelor’s degrees in 2015 were earned by women, according to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). However, this number is in stark contrast to the undergraduate population in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE), which as of fall 2016, comprised 49.5 percent women.

So how did MechE achieve a gender split that far surpasses the national average? It’s a question that a team of researchers, including Kath Xu ’16, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering Dawn Wendell ’04 SM ’06 PhD ’11, and lecturer in comparative media studies and writing Andrea Walsh sought to answer. They presented their results in June at the 2017 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference.

Gender parity as a recruitment tool

The team found that gender parity starts before students set foot onto MIT’s campus. MIT’s Office of Admissions has employed a variety of tactics to recruit female applicants. “We have to fight against conventional wisdom,” says Dean of Admissions Stuart (Stu) Schmill in an interview with the researchers. Schmill and the rest of MIT Admissions have to combat the popular assumption that the Institute is predominately male. In actuality, MIT’s undergraduate population is 46.1 percent female.

Admissions utilizes various channels — including blogs and Campus Preview Weekend — to dispel the myth that women are not represented on campus. “What made MIT stand out to me as an applicant were the student blogs,” recalls Xu, who graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. “They do a good job of showcasing the number of women and minorities at the school.”

Programs like the Women’s Technology Program (WTP), run through MechE and MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, also encourage young women to pursue STEM studies. The WTP invites female high school students to live on campus over the summer and gain hands-on engineering experience in labs and classes.

Highlighting the ratio of women in the student population is a “chicken-and-egg cycle,” as Schmill puts it in the study. MIT is able to attract female applicants by showcasing the number of women on campus, which then begets even more women on campus. Once these women are at MIT, they often gravitate toward female faculty for guidance and mentorship.

An existence proof

Seeing the effect female faculty members have on the women they teach helped former head of MechE Rohan Abeyaratne, who was also interviewed for the study, realize just how important it is to have women in leadership positions. One such faculty member is Anette (Peko) Hosoi, the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the first woman to be named associate department head in MechE.

“One thing I remembered greatly soon after Peko was hired was the number of female students who were going to her office hours was striking,” recalls Abeyaratne. The comfort level female students have with female faculty demonstrates the necessity for having more women in teaching roles.

In the study, the researchers found what female undergraduates are most interested in is assurance that they will have job prospects in the future. “When we talk to undergrads, they are not looking necessarily for role models,” explains Hosoi in the study. “They are looking for an existence proof. They want to know, ‘If I go down this path, is there going to be a job for me?’”

As students, both Xu and Wendell were able to find such existence proof on day one of majoring in mechanical engineering. Xu’s very first class was taught by Principal Research Scientist Simona Socrate SM ’90 PhD ’95. Meanwhile, Wendell’s first class was taught by Professor Emerita Mary Boyce SM ’84 PhD ‘87, who became MechE’s first female department head in 2008.

“At the end of the semester, I emailed Professor Boyce to ask her about being a mechanical engineer,” recalls Wendell, who now is a senior lecturer in the department. “She met with me for over an hour, telling me about her career and her passion for engineering.”

Cold calling female faculty

In their conversations with former and current faculty, the researchers found that 20 years ago, MechE wasn’t as welcoming of an environment for women. With just one female faculty member in the late 1990s, it was clear something had to change. The 2002 Report of the School of Engineering was a turning point and prompted Thomas Magnanti, then dean of engineering, to take action by requiring departments to enforce affirmative action. As part of MechE’s efforts, qualified women received phone calls encouraging them to apply to faculty positions.

One such woman was Hosoi. “When I arrived at MIT, there were a lot of women who had been hired at the same time,” she recalls in her interview with researchers. “At a junior women’s faculty lunch, somebody asked, ‘How did you end up at MIT?’ All of the answers were the same. ‘Somebody called and asked me to apply.’”

In addition to cold calling, the study found that altering faculty job descriptions to be more broad helped cast a wider net in department leadership’s efforts to ensure that more women had the opportunity to join the faulty.

Increasing awareness to reduce the gap

The first step toward closing the gender gap in STEM, according to Xu, Wendell, and Walsh’s findings, is acknowledging the gap exists. Increased awareness at MIT led to a concerted effort by departmental and Institute leadership to attract more female students and faculty members. "Achieving gender equity takes proactive effort and conscious strategies to achieve that goal," explains Walsh.

In addition to MechE’s commitment to achieving gender parity over the past two decades, there has been a great deal of support at an Institute level. MIT introduced more women’s programming across departments, invited speakers to discuss issues like imposter syndrome, and ensured women on campus had the support they need.  Additionally, MIT’s Program in Women’s and Gender Studies addresses issues of gender equity in STEM through courses and programming.

While these efforts have helped attract more women in the faculty and student populations, there is still more work to be done beyond the halls of MIT. “We aren’t just looking to make MIT a more welcoming place for women engineers, we also want to change the world,” adds Wendell. “Subtle bias is everywhere. I’m often mistaken for an administrative assistant, and when I give talks elsewhere, people will walk right past me and ask where the invited speaker is.”

The researchers conclude that the cultural shift needed to achieve gender parity in MechE was sparked by many small changes and the support of key allies on campus. It’s their hope that MIT and MechE’s example could help other schools. “We wanted to provide a blueprint that is broadly applicable to other universities that want to increase the female population in their STEM departments,” says Xu. More gender parity within universities, coupled with movements such as highlighting #WomeninSTEM on social media, could provide the catalyst needed to increase the number of women who pursue careers in STEM fields. 

This article was republished with permission from the MIT News Office.