From the Dean: Approaching Gender Parity

Spring 2015

Joseph Helble, Dean

The Thayer School has achieved an enviable and important milestone: we are approaching gender parity in our undergraduate classes. Our senior class is 42 percent women. Our junior class is 48 percent women. As the sophomore class begins to declare majors, early indications suggest it will also be above 40 percent women. Of the more than 300 students admitted to the class of 2019 expressing interest in engineering, more than 40 percent are women. And this year, for the first time, our summer engineering program for high school students will be at gender parity.

Our numbers stand out in a nation in which women have earned more than half of all total bachelor’s degrees over the past 20 years, but where the percentage of engineering degrees earned by women has actually declined. According to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), women earned just over 20 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2000, yet just over 19 percent in 2014. This decline is particularly frustrating in light of gains made in medicine and law. In the 1960s, when women earned roughly 35 to 40 percent of all college degrees, the percentages of women earning engineering, medicine, and law degrees were all in single digits. Fifty years later, women earn slightly more than half of all J.D.s, nearly half of all M.D.s., and yet engineering at the bachelor’s level has fallen below 20 percent.
Offering advice on “Piercing the 20 Percent Ceiling,” ASEE’s Prism magazine recently observed that programs that succeed in breaking this artificial barrier are likely those that emphasize hands-on experiential learning, create a culture and climate that treats all students the same, and provide opportunities for students to apply what they learn to real-world problems—problems they care about—and opportunities to use their engineering education to make a positive difference.

These are, of course, precisely the qualities that we emphasize and have long implemented at the Thayer School. But we also stress one more critical element: the importance of teaching engineering in combination with the liberal arts.

The intersection of the liberal arts and engineering—what we at Thayer often refer to as “liberal engineering”—is a powerful tool for addressing the real-world problems that all students care about. The liberal arts give students helpful perspectives for understanding the world, providing context for improving life. Engineering gives them the technical knowledge and problem-solving skills to meet human needs and change the world for the better. Neither is as strong without the other.

It’s no surpise that so many students interviewed for the article “Our Place” in this issue talk about how much they value studying the liberal arts and engineering, how much they like Thayer’s experiential learning and real-world problem-solving, and how comfortable they are in this environment. I’m proud that the Thayer School is setting a national example at a time when the world needs more engineers, especially those trained in liberal engineering, female and male alike.