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Why we need to keep women as engineering majors In college

This article originally appeared in Forbes on Nov. 24, 2014.

By Marla Lombard

As college acceptance letters go out over the next few months to the millions of high school seniors applying to universities in the United States this year, it is important to note that nearly half of all engineering majors drop out or change majors before they graduate.

Melody McCloskey, who founded StyleSeat, a social-media site for the beauty industry, recently talked with The Story Exchange about being discouraged in a high school computer coding class because she was the only woman enrolled.  When it was time to choose a university major, McCloskey went with international relations and French.

Universities are trying to shift that sense of deterrence.

This past fall, Stanford University welcomed 474 women to their undergraduate engineering program, about 30 percent of their overall engineering enrollment. At Purdue University, 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded go to women.

This problem of low female matriculation (compared to men) in engineering is not unique to the United States. Around the world, engineering programs struggle to attract and retain women.

While the United States ranks 20th in the latest Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum, the United Kingdom is 26th, and South Korea ranks 117th in the report. The report shows that overall, women account for a total of only about 30 percent of all science and technology related university majors in the U.S.

In a recent discussion with a group of engineering faculty at the Engineering Leaders conference about ways to improve recruitment and retention rates for female students, we talked about stronger integration of liberal arts content and courses into science and technology fields as a way of boosting interest.

One male colleague suggested that instead of putting the arts in engineering, let’s flip it around and ask arts majors– and women already enrolled in other majors– to take engineering classes. Issues like turf wars, accreditation requirements, and disciplinary silos certainly came up in the meeting.

But the “What if?” lingered.

The National Academy of Engineering has outlined the Grand Challenges facing engineering in the 21st century. In each of the challenges, multidisciplinary approaches will be needed to solve them.  Engineering challenges like water supply limitations and cyber security can benefit from teams that include French majors, designers, and public relations specialists.

There is growing realization in engineering that what are traditionally called “soft skills” are equally as important as the technical training.  Bernard Amadei of the University of Colorado, Boulder, said that social, cultural and ethical issues need to be given important consideration in engineering.

University engineering classes may not yet be up to the grand challenge of welcoming all students from across the campus. But as young women get those acceptance letters and think about their intended major, let them also think about possibilities beyond the intended study plan.

This way perhaps more women will enter engineering programs and stay there until they walk across the stage with an engineering degree.

- Marla Lombard is an assistant professor at Northwestern University in Qatar.

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