Engineering school enrolls more female undergraduates

The student and faculty gender gap in the School of Engineering and Applied Science is narrowing, as the college works to become an outlier in a field where women are vastly underrepresented.

In a year when the engineering school took its largest freshman class ever, the undergraduate female population grew to 39 percent, a 3 percent jump from the year before – momentum that faculty and students say will help to help draw more female talent.

Only 18.1 percent of engineering undergraduates nationwide were women in 2010, the last year data is available, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.

Dean David Dolling said GW’s 3 percent rise in female undergraduates would be cause for a “champagne celebration” at other engineering schools because the growth will help it compete for more female faculty and students as they visit campus.

“There’s an unconscious absorption of what the place is about by seeing so many women students here, so it feeds on itself. The environment becomes simply more friendly, more welcoming to women,” he said.

The undergraduate female population in the engineering school has grown 10 percent, with some fluctuations over the last decade. The female graduate student population hovered near 26 percent this year, beating the 2010 national average of 22.6 percent.

The school is looking for a competitive edge, especially as it prepares to move in 2015 into the Science and Engineering Hall. That edge could come from its inclusivity, said assistant professor of engineering and applied science Megan Leftwich, who was one of three new female hires in the school this year.

Its undergraduate female ratio far outpaces local schools like George Mason University’s 23 percent female population and the University of Maryland’s 19 percent female population.

“Having a large number of female students makes an engineering school better, as it adds diversity and perspective. Already having women attracts women, making it more likely to get the best women,” Leftwich said.

GW’s engineering school historically has been overshadowed by the University’s more policy-driven programs. Its undergraduate engineering program is ranked only No. 85 in the country and its graduate program No. 93.

The undergraduate program has also admitted nearly half of its applicants over the last four years, making it much less selective than every other school at GW.

But the University has poured resources into the school in recent years. The engineering school got the greenlight to hire up to 30 new professors over the next three years, part of a hiring burst aimed at helping GW join the ranks of top research institutions.

Seventeen of the school’s 85 professors will be women by the time two new faculty arrive in January, as Dolling said the school is looking to grow its female faculty core as it goes on the hiring prowl.

As it searches for six new professors this year, the school will continue to designate one search committee member to focus solely on diversifying the candidate pool to include more women and minorities.

“When there is more diversity in the classroom or lab, those spaces yield better results, and sometimes that means changing cultures that value masculinity,” Leftwich, the professor, said. “Female professors can serve as mentors and role models for the students.”

Junior Molly Delaney said she shied away from other engineering schools because she noticed men were overrepresented.

“It is wonderful to have female classmates to talk to as they are usually more understanding than our male classmates. The ratio is incredibly important, as we have become a very close knit community,” she said.

Remaking STEM, or the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, into ones with more gender equality has become the talk of policymaking circles and was a major White House initiative last year that linked the country’s progress in technical fields to its ability to open more doors to women.

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