Making the Classroom Gender-Inclusive

Webinar explores how to get more females interested in studying engineering

4 February 2011

Despite decades of efforts to attract more women to engineering, professors are still seeing few female students in their classes. In fact, the number of female engineering students around the world has been declining in recent years, according to several studies.

For example, the number of women graduating with engineering degrees in Australia fell from a high of 17.4 percent of all graduates in 2003 to 16.6  percent in 2008. In the United States, the rate in 2008 was 18.1  percent, the lowest since 1996. And the percentage in Canada has been declining every year since 2003—from 21.8 to 18.9 in 2007.

If you’re a college professor or a precollege teacher, you have a lot more power to increase those percentages than you might realize, according to Mary Ayre, Judith Gill, and Julie Mills—authors of the book Gender Inclusive Engineering Education [Routledge, 2010]. The three recently presented the “What’s Gender Got to Do With It?” webinar, based on their book. It was sponsored by the IEEE Women in Engineering group and IEEE-USA and explored how to get more female students interested in engineering by making classrooms more gender-inclusive. The three authors aim for a curriculum that is equally appealing to males and females.

Ayre recently retired as a senior lecturer in the department of science and sport at the University of Glamorgan, in England. Gill is an associate professor of education at the University of South Australia, in Adelaide. Mills is a professor of civil engineering at the School of Natural and Built Environments, also at the University of South Australia.

Compared with other demanding fields of study, engineering attracts a tiny percentage of women, according to a 2008 study of Australian universities. The study found that 16.6 percent of engineering students were women, compared with 43.1 percent in architecture, 53.6 percent in medicine, 57 percent in law, and 77.1 percent in veterinary medicine.

“The fact is that there really are far fewer women studying engineering,” Mills says. “We’re losing the battle of trying to attract women.”

What can teachers do to make a difference? According to Mills, there are three basic steps: find ways to attract more women to the field, help them do well in class, and keep them engaged so that they make it to graduation.

Getting female students interested in engineering—either in high school or in college before they choose a major—is perhaps the most difficult part. “They need supportive teachers and family, but most of all they need role models,” Mills says. Engineering teachers can themselves be the role models, and they can teach students about successful female engineers.

When it comes to generating interest in the field, male professors have just as much responsibility as their female counterparts, according to Mills. “Attracting women to engineering is not the sole responsibility of the few female faculty members,” she says, adding that those women are likely already spending all their extra time mentoring their female students.

Another way professors can boost interest at their university is to form a club or get involved with an existing one, like IEEE’s WIE group. Such associations are key because their events can introduce engineering to undergrads who have little knowledge of the field. “The more women-in-engineering programs your university has, the more female students you can reach,” Mills says. “It’s no coincidence that in Australia when the vast majority of universities had WIE programs, that’s when the number of female engineering graduates peaked.” She adds that in the last 10 to 15 years, those programs were slashed because of budget cuts, and the number of female engineering students dropped.

Encouraging women to take that first engineering class is one thing, but what can a teacher do to help those students enjoy the class and do well? The answer is in the curriculum, Gill says.

“A gender-inclusive curriculum is one that’s been consciously designed to enrich the learning experience of all students,” she says.

One way is to teach a variety of engineering applications. “All too often an engineering curriculum is crafted with an overuse of masculine stereotypes and examples [of engineering applications in] automobiles, rockets, and weapons,” Gill says. “Women often express an interest in the social context of engineering—technologies that can assist people in everyday endeavors as well as solving real-life problems.” Discussing engineering’s role in events such as last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill is a good way to engage students, she says.

Ayre suggests including social, environmental, and global objectives of engineering, as well as the technical ones. In other words, don’t just stick to teaching engineering theory, although that cannot be ignored.

It’s important to try different teaching methods, too, she says. That doesn’t just help female students, she adds. It’s a great way to accommodate the different learning methods of each student.

“What’s known as ‘chalk and talk’ is unfortunately the most dominant method of teaching, where the professor stands in front of the class writing on the board and doesn’t really do much else,” Mills says. More hands-on methods such as lab work are better at showing students the practical aspects of engineering, she says.

Some studies show women enjoy working collaboratively, so assigning group projects can get them engaged, Gill suggests. But she cautions that it’s wrong to assume all female students would rather work in teams. In fact, one female attendee at the webinar said she avoided taking classes that required lots of teamwork.

The key to reaching every student is variety, Mills says, and it’s also what helps ensure each student sticks with engineering through graduation.

Another way to help retain female students through graduation is to encourage them to join women in engineering clubs. Just as such groups are key to attracting students, Mills noted, they are also essential to retaining them.

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