Attracting female students into the engineering field is a challenge facing educators, industry and policy makers across the country. Twenty-eight percent of Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering students are female. That compares to the national average of 18 percent.
Georgia Tech is leading the way, graduating the most female engineers in the nation, but the College of Engineering is not resting on its success. Its incoming freshman class this fall will have close to 30 percent women. Two of Georgia Tech’s engineering programs, biomedical and environmental, both have more than 50 percent women.
Despite the success, Georgia Tech Dean of Engineering Gary May knows the Institute can do more.
“Right now we have a lot of work to do to build awareness and provide a support system for our women students as well as for our faculty, for that matter,” said May, who hosted a media roundtable in Washington, D.C. to discuss the challenges and success stories involved with attracting women to the STEM fields.
“I think the most critical aspect of what we’re doing is bringing awareness of the issues,” said May. “As an institution in a leadership position in the production of women engineers and scientists, it is our responsibility to get the word out about how important this is to the rest of the nation.”
The roundtable, held on Capitol Hill, highlighted a discussion of thought leaders from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, IBM and Caterpillar; representatives from academia; and recent alumni. Panelists shared their personal stories about overcoming obstacles, how they developed their own career in a STEM field as well as shared what their employers are doing to encourage women in the STEM fields.
“I’m an engineer. I’ve had a terrific career and really enjoyed what I’ve done and the types of problems you can bring your toolset to solve,” said Patricia Falcone from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and a roundtable panelist. “When I went to school, it was kind of the early days for women going into engineering. What surprises me is that the numbers haven’t gone up. We know that having mixed and diverse teams really enables creativity and good solutions.”
“I believe the number one issue with girls and women in technical fields is confidence or lack of confidence,” said Susan Puglia, vice president of IBM’s Global University Programs and vice chair of IBM’s Academy of Technology board of governors. “Building that confidence early on as girls are going through middle school, high school and even college, as well as into the workforce, is so important.”
Puglia says that IBM and other companies have programs designed to support their female workforce.
“We’ve been focused on some programs at IBM on teaching women what computing and engineering is all about," she said. "In the workforce, it takes the form of coaches or sponsorships to help them progress and do well in their fields.
The media roundtables are an example of a collaborative effort between Georgia Tech’s Office of Government and Community Relations, College of Engineering, Office of Development and Institute Communications.
“Policymakers in Washington, D.C. are very concerned about the STEM crisis in our country and the impact it’s having on our competitiveness,” said Robert Knotts, Georgia Tech’s director of Federal Relations. "As the producer of more engineers than any other university in the country, it’s important that Georgia Tech lead the discussion about how we can get more girls and women engaged in engineering. We were thrilled to hear from Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (the ranking member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee) and from our distinguished panel of experts about what we can all do to encourage and support female engineers.”
“This collaborative effort was possible because we had the support of so many units across campus,” said Matt Nagel, director of media relations. “Media roundtables give us a unique opportunity to raise Georgia Tech’s profile among many of its key audiences on a national level including media, congressional staff and other influencers in the D.C. area.”
Georgia Tech media relations team is working on several upcoming media roundtables, but Nagel says they are always looking for good ideas from the units across campus.
“Each roundtable is different. The Women in Engineering roundtable was targeted toward congressional staff and higher education reporters. In the future, we may take a more specific topic and have a much more intimate group setting.”
Georgia Tech hosted a roundtable discussion in Washington D.C. confronting the challenges and celebrating the successes of women in engineering. The goal is to have an open discussion about the obstacles—whether they be real or perceived—that make it difficult for women to pursue engineering. Joining Georgia Tech's experts were representatives from Texas A&M, The White House, and IBM.