Thayer first in the country to graduate more women than men

The Dartmouth

June 24, 2016

By Katie Rafter

For the first time since the school was established in 1867, Thayer School of Engineering graduated more female than male engineers earlier this month, making it the first American research university to achieve such a distinction.

According to the National Science Foundation, only 14.8 percent of the engineers in the country are female, and only around 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women. Thayer, where close to half of the junior and senior undergraduate majors are women, bucks that trend.

Thayer dean Joseph Helble said that the percentage of female engineers at Thayer has been growing gradually over the past few years, which he views very positively.

“I think we have reached a point where we may well have a student population that looks like Dartmouth’s overall student population in the foreseeable future and that’s exactly where we want to be,” he said.

He said Thayer makes an effort to make engineering appealing to all students at the College and show how important the subject is in the daily lives of most people.

“We’ve thought a lot about what students might perceive as barriers to studying engineering and we’ve taken steps to address and eliminate them wherever we can,” he said.

One important way in which Thayer attempts to do this is through the structure of the engineering curriculum, with an emphasis on group-based projects in the introductory courses, Helble said. For example, Engineering 21, an introductory course in the engineering sciences major, is tailored around group projects focused on a variety of broadly based topics chosen by the faculty.

Engineering professor Elsa Garmire said that the courses are structured to let students understand why they are studying the course material, a quality which she thinks appeals to the way many female students work. She said students can take Engineering 21 with only a high school-level physics background if they are interested in engineering.

With no right or wrong way to approach the projects, the department encourages students to be creative, Garmire said, citing an example from a few years ago when a group of students created an alternative to training wheels and ended up having their product patented and bought by a company.

“Everyone says ‘think outside the box,’ but we have a saying at Thayer that there is no box,” she said.

Having a clear purpose behind each engineering assignment helps retain female students, she added. Because of the collaboration-based classes, engineering is a very social major and becomes a close-knit community through the teamwork, Garmire said. Thayer is also fairly small and not divided into departments, she noted.

Engineering major Mary Grace Weiss ’16 graduated this spring as a member of Thayer’s first majority-female undergraduate class. Being a part of the first female-majority class was a point of pride for her, she said. She did not learn of the historic achievement until the graduation ceremony, she added.

Weiss decided to pursue engineering due to her passion for math and science growing up and a desire to help people through problem-solving. She was attracted to Thayer because of the College’s liberal arts program, which allows for flexibility if she wanted to switch majors. Women may be more inclined to choose Thayer because of that flexibility, Weiss said.

Garmire said that, although she studied physics instead of engineering, she still experienced the consequences of being a female in a male-dominated field. That gender dynamic can change the way people react to women and is similar to the experiences of any minority, she said. While Garmire was on the faculty at the University of Southern California, she attended an event at which the president of the university assumed her husband was the engineering professor rather than her.

“You have to be constantly aware that you’re female, and you have to speak up for yourself,” she said.

Garmire said she hopes the female-dominated graduating class is a signal of change moving forward. Helble said that national data is not encouraging at present, as female engineering majors still make up fewer than 20 percent of undergraduates in the field.

While the percentage of female graduates in engineering for Dartmouth’s peer institutions in the Ivy League has not yet been released, those figures usually fall in the mid-30s, Helble said.

Weiss said that she never felt uncomfortable with engineering as a male-dominated field while at Thayer, however, in her mechanical engineering classes, men made up the majority. She noted that she would be interested to know the gender breakdown within different types of engineering.

During her time at Thayer, Weiss had a number of female professors whom she respected and looked up to. During her engineering internships, she met more women in the field. One company she worked for held a biweekly women’s lunch for female engineers.

Weiss said the larger companies she has interacted with tend to have a more equal breakdown, which she says makes her more comfortable. She has, however, encountered predominantly male companies, which was often a challenge during her internships. She said she interviewed at one company that did not have a female restroom.

Helble said that it is almost inevitable right now that female engineers entering the workspace will encounter challenges when leaving Thayer. However, he believes that the collaborative curriculum prepares them well for this.