Gender Factors into the Experience of Women Engineering Students at MC

Manhattan College is well known for its engineering program.

The school, according to US News and World Report, graduates more engineers than any other major. In 2013, 26 percent of the graduating class was part of the School of Engineering. Still, the number of female students enrolled in engineering programs at Manhattan remains around 20 percent of the total engineering enrollment.

MC’s female enrollment in these programs is reflective of national trends.

“The proportion of women enrolled in engineering schools in the United States has essentially been flat for the last 25 years,” Dean of the School of Engineering Tim Ward, Ph.D., said.

According to data from the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, women enrollment in undergraduate engineering programs has fluctuated between 18 and 20 percent since 1990, and has actually begun to decrease since 1996, according to their study.

At MC, this discrepancy in enrollment can be seen, but is not necessarily a polarizing force in the engineering programs. Ann Marie Flynn, associate professor of chemical engineering, said that in her time as both an engineering student and faculty member at MC she never felt out of place.

“I have always thought excellence is the great equalizer,” Flynn said. “If you’re good at something, you’ll get picked.”

Flynn acknowledged the national work that has been done to promote further female enrollment in engineering programs, but said that as the data reflects, the money that has been poured into these programs has yielded few results.

“No one is looking at engineering women’s interests,” Flynn said. She suggested many different opportunities for schools and companies to engage with girls at a young age that would spark an interest in engineering programs. Flynn said using new technologies such as 3-D printing to make dolls could change the way women are engaged in science and technology programs.

“I never wanted to play with robots or erector sets,” Flynn said.

For female students who are currently enrolled in engineering programs at the college, the more pressing matter is making sure they are represented within the community of engineers.

“When I chose to go to school for engineering I knew that because I am a female that I was going to be a minority,” Shannon Miller, a sophomore civil engineer, said. Her interest in civil engineering was sparked by male figures in her life. “My father and brother sparked my interest in engineering,” she said. “My father was a marine engineer on an FDNY fireboat and before that he worked as a firefighter with side jobs as a plumber, electrician and contractor. My brother is an ironworker who has helped to build many of NYC’s new buildings including the Freedom Tower. These men make me love the idea of civil engineering and being able to build something.”

Still, Miller is aware that being a female in an engineering program makes her a minority.

“Coming to school and being surrounded by male students and teachers I know that I have to give my schoolwork 100 percent in order to be taken seriously,” she said.

Miller is no stranger to these experiences. She trained in kickboxing for 10 years, what she described as a male dominated sport, and said that her teacher, a professional female kickboxer, helped her to train hard so that she could compete against the boys.

Caitlin Hall, a freshman mechanical engineer, said she chose engineering to combine her passion for art and science.

“I loved to figure out how things functioned and I respected even the smallest of contraptions, like a stapler,” Hall said. “Who would have ever thought of that? I want to form a mind of an engineer so one day I can be the root of what I found so magical when I was younger.”

Female enrollment in engineering schools nationwide varies based on the types of programs offered.

“Different programs can have a lot more females in them,” Ward said. “The ones that I have seen are biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and chemical engineering. Myself and others have seen higher proportions in those programs. On our campus the highest proportion of females is in chemical engineering.”

There is not a plan to begin other programs that tend to be statistically more attractive to female applicants, as according to Ward, the resources are not available for it.

“Is there something like this at Manhattan? Not yet,” Flynn said. “But these things take money.”

The School of Engineering instead takes the approach that obtaining a good basic degree in one of their major programs can lead to a further concentrated program of study at the graduate level. At MC, there is an active presence of women engineers on campus.

The national organization, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), has a chapter at MC. Katie Lang, the Vice President of External Affairs for the college’s chapter, said she feels their presence is an important part of the female engineering experience at Manhattan College.

“It is important for women engineers to support and empower other women engineers,” Lang said. “We bring together young women engineers at Manhattan College to be role models not only to each other, but also to young girls in general.”

“It’s always nice to have support groups,” Ward said. “We talk about community at Manhattan College. Community means associating with all different varieties of people that not only you can support but can support you. Society of Women Engineers is something that would be really vital to that.”

Hall also noted SWE as an important outlet and presence on campus. “It’s good to get together with the few women engineers that there are,” she said. “It can make one much more comfortable and welcome to the field knowing that they aren’t alone.”

While Ward said the school strives to attract a diverse group of applicants, he feels at its core that engineering and the experience of students at Manhattan College should not be adversely affected by their identity.

“As far as I’m concerned, engineering should be devoid of any type of gender, racial, ethnic or religious bias,” Ward said. “Statics is statics, that’s just it.”