When Anita Vila-Parrish was an undergraduate student at North Carolina State University 15 years ago, there were no women faculty in the industrial and systems engineering department. Now there are three, and it feels like a victory in the 20-member department.
Vila-Parrish has been the director of undergraduate programs in the ISE department since 2010, during which time she has overseen much more dramatic growth among female undergraduate students declaring the major. Back in 2010, about 25% of the students in the department were women. This semester, it’s almost exactly half.
“We’ve done a lot of things, taking a lot of different approaches and avenues, which I think is important,” Vila-Parrish said. “You have to figure out why it may be that females are not finding their specific engineering discipline or engineering at all.”
The Industrial and Systems Engineering Department focus has been on freshmen. NC State enrolls more than 5,000 students each year. Many of them find their way to engineering from other areas of interest, but more than 300 come into the college of engineering with an undeclared major. To attract both types of students to ISE, Vila-Parrish said they have shifted their pitch to focus more on career opportunities and real-world impact, rather than getting bogged down in mathematical or scientific concepts.
“That’s telling a much more compelling story,” Vila-Parrish said.
Other schools have found success by changing the names of obscure course titles. Short of that strategy, Vila-Parrish said she annotated the curriculum in a recruitment push, describing what skills students would learn in courses with somewhat scary names.
“Wow, I could design a product that is put into a BMW, or I can determine the best scheduling tool to be used at a hospital so that a clinic can be run more efficiently. You give them these tangibles,” Vila-Parrish said.
A key population that has helped with recruitment is current female students in the department. They give prospective students an example of what their futures can be. Women in Science and Engineering organizations do the same thing, connecting students with working professionals who look like them and have some of the same concerns.
So far, impressive gains in individual departments across the country have not translated to significantly higher portions of women in faculty roles or executive positions in industry. The “leaky pipeline” is alive and well.
In a comprehensive survey of coding bootcamp students, SwitchUp found 41% were women, a significantly higher percentage than is common in higher education computer science departments. It is too soon to tell whether the alternative training format will bring more women into the field. But it certainly has not attracted large numbers of Latinos or black coders.
In an excerpt from her master’s critique, Carolyn Brinkworth, director for diversity, education, and outreach at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says one key problem with the lack of diversity in STEM fields is the idea that they are driven by a meritocracy.
“Unfortunately, a raft of research clearly demonstrates that this is not the case, and if we persist in this unsubstantiated belief in meritocracy, it perpetuates an uglier myth — that the lack of diversity in STEM is due to a lack of aptitude amongst those who are underrepresented in our field,” Brinkworth writes.
It is telling that the two engineering departments at NC State that arguably have seen the most growth among women are both led by female directors of undergraduate programs — Industrial and Systems Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering.
Beyond recruitment, STEM programs can focus on supporting student retention. The first year in many of these disciplines is challenging. Historically, they may even have been used to weed out students who were less prepared. In the name of access, however, colleges have built up support structures to keep women and other underrepresented groups on track.
The institutions that have made this a priority, in the end, are going to be the ones producing a more diverse group of graduates for the world.
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