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Engineering Female Success

News & Features | April 4, 2011

It comes as little surprise that a technical field like engineering is still dominated by males. In kindergarten, supposedly “math-minded” boys construct LEGO fortresses, leaving “artsy” girls to dabble in pretty watercolors. But today, more women than ever are pursuing engineering disciplines, proving to onlookers that they can design buildings and ace Differential Calculus too. Engineering departments once as male-heavy as boy’s locker rooms are seeing record numbers of females spearhead achievement. For them, it is rocket science.

A proud icon of this trend, Tufts’ School of Engineering is growing and thriving, enticing more and more females into its competitive doors. At the head and heart of it all is Tufts’ Dean of Engineering, Linda Abriola. Abriola was recently honored in American Women of the Sciences since 1900, an encyclopedia that praises female scientists whose contributions have been overlooked or undervalued.

“I was both humbled and amazed,” said Abriola. “I’ve seen the list of women, and it is certainly wonderful to be considered in their company.”

Today, females account for 20 percent of Tufts faculty and 30 percent of its student body, said Abriola.

“I think there is a lot of good effort underway now,” she said. “ If we want to be a leader in science and technology, we’re going to have to recruit women and underrepresented groups. It’s been a huge loss, and people are recognizing that now.”

The number of women pursuing engineering is climbing across the board. At the infamously male-dominant MIT, female students account for 1,507 out of 4,712, or 32% of engineering students, according to its office at the registrar website.

Regina Barzilay, an associate professor within MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Sciences department, attributes increasing ratios to the university’s recruitment efforts.

“MIT’s search committee consistently lends itself to finding strong female candidates,” Barzilay said. “The environment at MIT does everything it can to promote young women in the field. And in response, we’ve noticed some consistent increase of female students.”

Barzilay adds that MIT is the perfect environment for her own research, which investigates natural language processes through mathematical modeling.

At Tufts, Abriola harnesses mathematical modeling for a radically different aim: to unearth facts about our ecosystem, namely the harmful effects of pollution and toxic waste. Her interest soared following the Love Canal disaster of the early ‘80s, a public health disaster induced by an influx of toxins in a New York community.

“People had to abandon their houses,” Abriola said of the disaster. “I became even more interested in the natural environment and how we could use it to our advantage to deal with pollution issues.”

Abriola says that, at the time of her education, virtually no women joined her in the pursuit of engineering. The complex, mathematical basis of engineering was largely a “guy-thing,” simply not labeled a girl’s trade.

“I never had a female mentor when I was at school,” Abriola said. “I never had a female science or engineering professor. I never even saw a woman faculty member.”

Despite the paucity of female guidance, Abriola glided through male-dominated college classrooms, graduate programs, and research groups. She was the only female in her graduate engineering program at Drexel University. At Princeton, she was one of only a few women pursuing an engineering masters degree. Abriola was a slim minority throughout her entire engineering career.

“It certainly was tough,” she said. “You really have to have a thick skin. I think I survived basically through stubbornness. I wanted to demonstrate that women could do it. I didn’t give up very easily.”

“Struck” by the school after her first visit, Abriola now praises Tufts as the perfect landscape for aspiring female engineers.

“The environment here for women is so much better than what I experienced,” she said. “Tufts Engineering is a school I would have wanted to go to.”

One science-minded female drawn to Tufts is junior Emily Shaw, who studies civil engineering. Shaw said that civil engineering has a relatively high number of female students here at Tufts, totaling about 1/3 of the department.

“Personally, I love math and science—I’m just a concrete-numbers kind of person,” she said. “I definitely think that as we progress through the generations, engineering will become much more acceptable for girls.”

Shaw proposes that most girls are attracted to civil engineering for its “artsy” feel, compared to more cut-and-dry modes of thinking.

“As much as chemistry can be, it’s more of an art,” Shaw said. “‘Building a building’ is more of a stereotypical guy thing to do. A lot of the chemical engineers are interested in biotechnology, which can be considered more ‘nurturing.’”

While female numbers are surging, a long road to equal representation in engineering lies ahead. According to Abriola, the percentage of female engineers at universities totals just 17%.

“Unfortunately numbers are not where they should be, and I think a lot of people are concerned,” said Abriola.

The most male-dominant of its counterparts, Tufts’ electrical engineering department reflects the field’s still-slanted gender ratios. Nicole Levasseur, who decided to try her hand at all the “concrete numbers” stuff, is one of only five females in her class. The class of 2011 has just one female electrical engineer, according to Levasseur.

“At first it was kind of intimidating,” admits Levasseur. “But now that I know all the guys it’s not a big deal anymore. It’s just another part of the school.”

But imbalanced gender ratios my have its perks, at least where getting a job is concerned. Along with academic programs, professional engineering sites are eager to curb gender imbalance by recruiting more female candidates.

“It’s like, you’re a girl and you’re an engineer—you’re in!” said Shaw, who hopes to land a position at a biotech company. “It’s easier to get the job because engineering is looking to diversify and they don’t quite have that diversity right now.”

And it looks like Tufts’ females have found the right entrance into the field’s professional arena. From the time she occupied the deanship, Abriola has done all she can to transform Tufts into a prestigious and congenial learning haven.

Since it offers small classes, professors all really get to know you,” said electrical engineer Levasseur. “I definitely feel comfortable with everyone in my class. We’re all pretty much on the exact same playing field.”

According to Abriola, achieving gender equality requires communicating differently about the field. It takes challenging engineering’s “tool-fiddling” stereotypes and touting it as a vibrant and stimulating profession.

“I don’t see someone solitary sitting in a lab when I think about engineering,” said Abriola. “It’s been a very creative and social career. I hope I can help people see that it’s a great job to have for women and I don’t want to see them discouraged.”

It might be a while before engineering achieves completely balanced gender ratios. But we must look not only at the numbers, but the progress. While 30% of female engineers at Tufts might not seem so high, the statistic is significant when compared to a history of virtually no female students or faculty. Between Dean Abriola’s supervision and ongoing recruitment efforts, Tufts Engineering has grown into a prestigious haven for male and female students alike. And these progressive environs have paved the way for meaningful female contribution to the field. When we hear that the next Eiffel Tower or Golden Gate Bridge was the handiwork of a math-minded female, perhaps we won’t be so surprised.