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Balancing Act

Student groups are working to even out the unbalanced gender ratio forming in two majors at MU
Tuesday, November 30, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:24 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 28, 2008

The halls of MU’s two engineering buildings are filled with men. Males constitute close to 90 percent of both students and faculty in the College of Engineering. In a discipline historically dominated by men, however, there is a growing presence of female students.

Ashley Stieferman, a senior industrial engineering major and president of the Society of Women Engineers, said she is not intimidated by the predominance of men in the school.

“It really doesn’t bother me at all,” she said.

Sue Hamilton, adviser to the Society of Women Engineers, said she noted the confidence of the female students.

“What’s really pretty awesome is that the ladies in the College of Engineering — they don’t worry about it,” she said. “They know what they’re good at, know what they want, and they’re going to go after that.”

The Society of Women Engineers provides an outlet for female students to connect with one another and to serve the community.

“We help try to give society a positive impression of women in engineering and how we as women can be successful in engineering,” said Stieferman, the society’s president. Stieferman said the group not only promotes the growing number of women in the field but also strives to attract more women to it.

The group contributes to the Central Missouri Food Bank, works with Girl Scouts of the United States of America and sponsors a middle school engineering project.

The College of Engineering recognizes this focus on young girls as the most important way to attract more women to the field. Chris Weisbrook, assistant dean of academic programs for engineering, said the school’s faculty thinks the best way to draw women to engineering is to keep them interested in math in middle school and high school. Through programs such as a summer engineering camp, the school aims to grab their attention.

Weisbrook also said the school is working to increase its recruitment of females and students overall.

“There’s a great need for technical expertise,” she said. “There are not enough white males to fill the engineering jobs. It’s necessary to recruit more minorities and females into engineering.”

Weisbrook said the prevalence of male professors is a factor that might discourage women from developing an interest in the subject. Only eight of the 90 faculty members in the department are women.

“At first glance, there seems to be a strong correlation between numbers of female faculty and female students,” Weisbrook said.

“To keep women engaged, you have to come at it from a different perspective,” she said. “Male professors don’t always think about that.”

Weisbrook also mentioned false impressions of engineering as a reason women might not be interested in the field.

“Female students tend to put a lot of value on relationships,” Weisbrook said. “People skills are very, very important in engineering, but the image tends to be that it’s all task-oriented.”

Weisbrook said there is a difference in female enrollment in the engineering programs. Although women make up 12.8 percent of all engineering students, 45 percent of the biological engineering students are female. Only 3 percent of students specializing in electrical engineering are women.

The continued predominance of men in engineering is a nationwide trend. Weisbrook said, however, that some colleges that have already heavily recruited women now have close to equal male and female enrollments.

At the other end of the spectrum, the School of Social Work is 92.2 percent female, according to 2003 statistics from MU’s registrar.

Six of the 26 social work professors are men. Larry Kreuger, professor of social work, said he does not view the lower number of male faculty members in the school as a factor deterring men from the field. He said the predominance of female students and professors simply results from the historical perception of the subject.

“I tend to think that both of those things come from the traditional philosophy, from the public, that, like nursing, it’s traditionally viewed as a female field. But both men and women are welcome,” Kreuger said.

Megan Klenke, a senior student in social work, is co-president of the Council of Student Social Workers. She said she agrees that the field has remained dominated by females because of its historical function in society.

“It was kind of taken on by women, as a nurturer’s role, so it’s kind of perceived as something a woman would do,” Klenke said. “It’s still thought of as a motherly, nurturing sort of thing.”

Klenke said that this public perception is not accurate because social work has expanded to include opportunities and roles beyond that of nurturer.

Although some men enter the field to do clinical work, the majority tend to focus on research, policy analysis and administrative positions, according to Klenke and Colleen Galambos, director of MU’s School of Social Work.

“Generally, what you find is that men interested in social work often go into it and assume leadership positions in a very short period of time,” Galambos said.

Although only 9 percent of the undergraduate social work students are men, the school’s graduate programs attract more. For instance, 20 percent of the department’s doctoral students are male.

Another factor affecting the number of men interested in the field is the amount of federal funding directed toward social work. Galambos said the level of male participation is cyclical, with more men attracted to the profession when there are more financial incentives from the government.

The School of Social Work actively recruits both male and female students through open houses, informational lunches and pen pal programs with middle schools and high schools in Columbia.

Galambos said one positive result of the number of women in the field is that, because social work and nursing are so predominantly female, these departments have women in leadership positions often held by men.

“It provides some diversity at other levels within the university,” she said.


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