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STEM majors look to increase female presence

Only 23 percent of students at UNH’s College of Engineering and Physical Science (CEPS) are female, but many students and faculty are committed to increasing gender diversity in CEPS programs.

Community outreach and mentorship programs are increasingly popular ways to recruit and retain females in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, specifically engineering. According to UNH CEPS professors, students, both male and female, might not have an opportunity to be exposed to what engineering actually entails until it is time to apply for college. Furthermore, women are more likely to choose a career path where they have been able look up to another successful female in that field. If a young woman applying for college has never seen another female engineer, she is less likely than her male peers to apply for an engineering program.

“We make sure to cultivate strong female role models,” department chair and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Erin Bell said. Bell explained how she has witnessed increasing gender diversity in her disciplines of engineering, saying that if there was another woman in her classes as an undergrad, it was a big deal.

Some current female engineering students can relate to that idea.

“I was the only girl that I knew of who was going to be an engineering major in college,” said sophomore civil engineering major Allison Christie.

Currently at UNH, the department of environmental engineering has 51 percent females and the department of civil engineering has 21 percent females. Civil and environmental engineering also has 35 percent female faculty, making it one of the highest ratios of male to female engineering faculty in the nation. 

However other disciplines of engineering have not been as successful in recruiting and retaining females in their programs. The makeup of the electrical and computer engineering department is only 11 percent females, while mechanical engineering contains 15 percent females.

Our major efforts to increase the female population of our very-male-dominated discipline is to provide funding to the UNH chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) for outreach efforts and we are particularly open to recruiting female faculty members,” said department chair and professor of electrical and computer engineering Kent Chamberlin.

Some of the success of recruiting and retaining female students in the departments of environmental and civil engineering can be attributed to their strong mentorship program and presence of female faculty members. Their success with gender diversity can also be attributed to a clear connection between civil and environmental engineering and making the world a better place, according to a number of female engineering professors and students. This could also be due to lack of exposure to other disciplines of engineering and knowing about what they actually entail.

Assistant professor of education, Diane S. Pimentel, who specializes in STEM education, noted that there are also socially constructed stereotypes about engineering that some women don’t want to be associated with. Each woman has her own experience, but there are still social pressures women face that men do not.

“Females tend to feel like they constantly have to prove themselves; males tend not to feel that way,” Pimentel said.

Pimentel also said that as more women see other women achieving success in engineering and other STEM fields, it will be easier for them to go into STEM careers. She also expressed the impact that mentorship can have on young women who are just starting out as engineering majors.

“Some departments are very actively recruiting women faculty members to try to increase the number of female students in these programs,” said interim associate dean of academic affairs in the college of engineering and physical sciences, Sharon McCrone.

Overall, a consistent belief among the many professors and students interviewed was that strong female role models are an instrumental part of decreasing the gender gap in engineering.

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