Harnessing Her Power


Everybody knows that women can’t make it as engineers, right?

USD electrical engineering professor Susan Lord heard that perception so often at meetings of engineering professors from around the country that she began to believe it herself, even though it was contrary to her own experience. The popular belief was that women “don’t go into it” and “don’t persist in it,” she says.

But guess what? A research study by Lord and another USD professor has found that in fact, women who major in engineering graduate at rates comparable to those of men.

“This belief that women are more likely to drop out of engineering is the academic equivalent of an urban myth,” says associate professor of sociology Michelle Madsen Camacho.

The results of the study show that women could help solve an engineering shortage that threatens the ability of the United States to meet the economic and technological challenges of the 21st century.

The study by Lord and Madsen Camacho, published in the “Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering,” looked at more than 79,000 students who majored in engineering at nine public universities in the Southeast between 1987 and 2004. Overall, the study found that women persist in engineering through four years at the rate of 54 percent, compared to 55 percent for men.

Researchers from Purdue University and the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology also contributed to the study, which suggests that the real problem is that fewer women decide to major
in engineering.

The problem “is not rates of attrition but simply getting them through the door in the first place,” Madsen Camacho says. Women make up nearly 58 percent of all college graduates but only 17 percent of engineering students. Women look at the gains made in other fields and think “something must be wrong in engineering,” Lord says.

Both professors say that more efforts are needed to attract women into the profession. Indeed, two USD students who chose to major in engineering say they did so largely because of efforts to make them aware of the possibilities in the field.

Tiara Chapel’s high school in Mississippi offered presentations on careers in engineering, and she also has a family member in the profession. In California, a high school advisor helped make Renee Thomashow aware of the field.

“It just sort of made sense,” says Chapel, who likes solving problems using math and science. Thomashow recalls seeing a college engineering textbook and thinking, “This fits what I want to do to a ‘T.’”

Both are juniors in industrial engineering, looking forward to working in the field that involves creating and improving systems to efficiently move around materials, equipment, energy, information and people.

Engineering needs better promotion, Lord concludes: “Not all engineering is building cars. Engineers play a critical role in shaping our society. It is imperative that all the best minds be involved in this endeavor.” — Liz Harman

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