College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Engineering groups address national need to add more female insight to the field

With women representing only 13 percent of the engineering workforce, leaders and students in the College of Engineering at Iowa State are actively supporting and developing initiatives to encourage females in the discipline.

Offering a variety of female-directed student groups and programs that provide mentors; social and professional development opportunities; and scholarships, these activities are designed to create a welcoming, well-connected culture among students.

“We’re developing solutions to reverse a long-standing stereotype that casts engineering as a field for males. Diversity is important to our college, and these programs are a great way to reach out to an underrepresented group of students,” says College of Engineering Interim Dean Mufit Akinc. “These efforts have been very successful, and it makes a nice difference for the women in our program. At the end of the day, it’s about meeting the needs of all our students to help them succeed.”

A starting place

Several academic departments across the college now have groups for female students, providing a place for them to share ideas and build relationships with others who have similar experiences of being underrepresented in the classroom.

The Department of Mechanical Engineering led the charge, establishing Women in Mechanical Engineering (WiME) in 2007. The group began under the direction of Jonathan Wickert, Iowa State’s Senior Vice President and Provost, who was ME chair at the time.

To make the students feel welcomed, Wickert personally called each woman who indicated an interest in mechanical engineering on her college application to discuss what the department and engineering could offer. From there, WiME established a set of priorities and started establishing the program’s professional development, scholarship, and networking components.

Digital Women
Members of Digital Women

The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering sponsors Digital Women, which was initiated in 2009 by two CprE students who sought to inspire confidence and fuel skills in women engineers.

“Research shows women who participate in networking groups do better academically and are more self-assured. We hope to provide forums for sharing advice, experiences, and resources,” says Deborah Martin, academic advisor of ECpE and advisor to Digital Women.

In 2011, aerospace engineering established Sustaining Progress and Inspiring Careers in Aerospace (SPICA), which offers seminars, workshops, and help rooms to foster success in women and other underrepresented groups. While the group aims to reach female aerospace engineering students early in their academic career, Peggy Boylan-Ashraf, AerE senior lecturer who worked with Richard Wlezien, Vance and Arlene Coffman Endowed Department Chair in Aerospace Engineering, to develop SPICA, says the group is all-inclusive; any freshman can participate.

Two civil and construction engineering women’s organizations have emerged as well: Civil Ladies and ConE Ladies. Both groups have organized professional development events, including tours and networking opportunities at local companies. They are individual groups, but at times they work together, along with other student organizations in CCEE, to provide broad learning opportunities.

Unique frameworks to achieve the same purpose

Many females in engineering find important connections in large umbrella women engineers groups like the Program for Women in Science and Engineering (PWiSE) and the Society for Women Engineers (SWE). As students progress beyond general education courses into department-specific courses, however, groups in their areas of study can add value.

Each of the discipline-specific groups in engineering has its own setup, but they are all focused on offering the most opportunity possible to female students.

Civil Ladies operates as an autonomous organization with support from the department, allowing them to keep their leadership fluid.

“We all worked together without official positions, so we learned how to lead and how to step back. We built communication skills and learned how to admit when we made mistakes,” says Sara Sloan, 2012 graduate in environmental engineering and former leader of Civil Ladies.

Digital Women connects with industry companies to find sponsors and build professional networks so the group can operate independently as well.

Brittney Lipp, senior in aerospace, helped get SPICA up and running. She says she loves that the department is trying to make more resources accessible to female students. “When you are the only girl in a group, you can be pushed aside or get stuck working on ‘aesthetics.’ You have to have a bold personality to stick with it and prove you can do the hard stuff,” Lipp says.

ConE Ladies is less formally organized, as Jennifer Shane, CCEE associate professor and faculty coordinator for the group, works with students to organize events, freeing up their time to dedicate to other student groups and activities.

WiME also uses a team approach for leadership, with several students working together to help plan and coordinate activities. Their approach, like the other groups, gives everyone an equal voice, shares responsibilities, and creates a positive environment where students feel they can make a difference.

Giving and receiving guidance

Students often find inspiration from others, and that’s what these groups hope to facilitate among peers, faculty members, and industry representatives.

Civil Ladies aimed to create ways for younger students to work with juniors and seniors who have valuable experiences in research and industry, as well as connections to faculty. Additionally, the group says, mentors are a vital resource for choosing classes and navigating course loads.

SPICA also offers an environment where students can learn from peer and faculty mentors. During hour-long weekly seminars, students meet faculty on a level playing field and learn about active research projects shaping the engineering world, igniting and affirming their decision to join and remain in the field.

Sophomores in SPICA are encouraged to assist in help rooms alongside faculty. Digital Women also holds study sessions, matching students who are struggling in classes with peers who have taken those courses.

Civil Ladies and ConE Ladies visit HDR
Civil Ladies and ConE Ladies visit HDR

“The goal is to build a community of learners and mentors that goes beyond the classroom walls. Not only will our student mentors be able to strengthen their own knowledge, but they will also become active participants in teaching. The idea is enabling students to help other students. Our objectives are simple: Mentor our students early on in their academic life and encourage them to become mentors, and then to pass the torch on to the next generation,” Boylan-Ashraf says.

Students in ConE Ladies, WiME, and Digital Women have more informal mentoring —with many of the female students routinely offering to help each other out as needed.

And all the women receive guidance directly from industry through job site and company visits, where they learn about the challenges that come with working in industry and how to best manage them.

Another form of support

The mechanical engineering department is committed to giving every female ME student a $1,000 scholarship. As long as the women continue in mechanical engineering and remain in good academic standing, the scholarship is theirs for the duration of their undergraduate education.

Donors like Dale and Jan Johnson make this promise possible. The Johnsons are active supporters of the college through outreach programs, scholarships, and a special fund for mechanical engineering needs.

“I want the funds to be used in mechanical engineering for what the department thinks is important, and supporting females is a departmental priority,” says Dale Johnson. “If these women are good enough to get into Iowa State engineering, then they are good enough to be engineers, and they are the people we want leading our nation in engineering.”

Candy Charity, a 1979 graduate of computer engineering, is working on creating a new scholarship for females in that program.  Although a few years from implementation, Charity is excited about the positive effect she hopes the scholarship will have.

“Diversity in the workplace can bring greater creativity, innovation, and improved problem-solving, which leads ultimately to better products for the customer,” says Charity. “My Iowa State engineering degree and knowledge attained there helped me have a satisfying career, and I hope the scholarship will encourage women to complete their degree in computer engineering as well.”

Spreading the message

The groups make it a priority to introduce young students to engineering, hoping to encourage them to consider the field later in life.

Digital Women networks with other clubs through holiday events and projects. One activity, IT Adventures, allows them to interact with high school to college level participants, getting students interested in computer engineering.

WiME at the Science Center of Iowa
WiME at the Science Center of Iowa

WiME supports a program called Chat with ME, which brings in visiting female faculty and professionals to talk with women, and tours of labs and companies are arranged whenever possible.

“The involvement students have with outreach at local middle schools is a big part of WiME,” says Baskar Ganapathysubramanian, assistant professor in mechanical engineering and WiME faculty liaison. “Many people could explain what a doctor or a lawyer does, but when it comes to engineering, they aren’t sure. We absolutely need to start getting young girls educated about and interested in engineering.”

With the help of a grant from the Department of Energy, Civil Ladies combined forces with the American Society of Civil Engineers for a hands-on wind energy workshop delivered to 3rd and 4th grade students. After presenting, the group left their materials, including PowerPoint presentation, handouts, step-by-step instructions for hands-on stations, and a wind turbine model, for the teacher to reuse with future classes.

“Outreach is one of my passions because I didn’t know about engineering at all growing up. A lot of girls have a parent in engineering, which is how they knew about and studied engineering. I want to go to middle schools and high schools and tell them this is something they can do,” says Samantha Spiering, 2012 graduate of civil engineering and former leader of Civil Ladies.

A hopeful outlook

The students involved in these groups know that overcoming the gender gap that exists in engineering will take time, but they are proud of their accomplishments and want to keep the momentum going.

Many of them agree that engineering is a rewarding profession despite the difficulty of the coursework, noting that even male students can be intimidated by the demands of the field. They want female students to know these things shouldn’t stop them from pursing an engineering degree.

As these and other programs grow, so will the potential for female engineers to bring their valuable perspectives and talents to take on the challenges of today’s society.


Sophie Hayek and Kristene Dontje contributed to this story.