Tackling the STEM gender gap: how the Lyle School is shattering the 20 percent ceiling.

Ever since she was a young girl, Abbey Klause has had a passion for creating things. She collected rocks, built Lego masterpieces, and was one of the few girls in her class who found joy in the objectivity of math and chemistry. Now, as an Environmental Engineering major at SMU, she is learning to design some of the most vital things for human life and safety. And in a field traditionally dominated by men, Klause does not feel disadvantaged.

“Being at woman at Lyle has been an unbelievably rewarding experience,” Klause said. “I am proud to go to SMU for the incredible job they do at treating women equally in such a traditionally male field. Gender disparity is thankfully something I have never had to deal with within the confines of Lyle school.”

Today, females make up 34 percent of Lyle’s undergraduate student population, with the last two classes of first-year students being as high as 38 percent female, said Mickey Saloma, Lyle’s assistant dean for recruitment. Compare this to the national average of roughly 19 percent.

In 2004, the Lyle school launched its Gender Parity Initative, which seeks to “increase the population of women studying engineering at SMU” by focusing on pre-college programs, such as summer camps for girls and professional development workshops for educators, and college programs, according to Betsy Willis, director of the Gender Parity Initiative.

Klause cites SWE (Society of Women Engineers) as a “great way to connect within the school.”

SWE is an international organization, and the SMU chapter “aims to support women majoring in STEM degrees while fostering the next generation of female engineers,” as stated on its website.

Each year, SMU’s SWE hosts the She Networks, She Wins event, where female engineering students can speak with senior enginnering leaders in “top companies” like Raytheon, AT&T and Texas Instruments, Saloma said.

Additionally, each semester, Lyle hosts the Lyle Women in Engineering day, where women can attend discussions led by Lyle female faculty members and tour of some of the labs that “seem to speak more to our female engineers,” such as the biomedical and environmental engineering research labs, according to Saloma.

Marc Christensen, SMU’s engineering dean, told the American Society for Engineering Education how the school has become increasingly hands-on as a way to further attract females to the school. For example, the program’s Innovation Gym provides students with various “real world, time-sensitive” ungraded projects, which allows female students to see that, despite the gender imbalance, they are just as capable of completing the same projects as well as their male counterparts.

Those efforts, as well as a strong mentoring presence, are precisely what attracted Klause to the Lyle school.

For example, when Klause met Saloma at an admissions event and learned of their long-term goals for gender parity, she “felt pursued and cared for as a woman in engineering, with incredible financial aid to support my college career,” Klause said.

Saloma explains how Lyle’s gender parity efforts are programmatic and designed to highlight the “amazing female engineering students we have at SMU.”

“It’s not just that SMU has about double the national average of females in our engineering undergraduate programs,” Saloma said. “Lyle boasts some amazing female engineers that will truly be a force in industry in the very near future.”

However, the Computer Science major remains behind the curve.

Morgan Winslow is a male Computer Science major, and although he has noticed a growing number of females in the grades below him, he thinks the Computer Science major still has a long way to go.

“Most of my classes have just one or two girls in a class of about 20,” Winslow said. “I notice that there seem to be more girls in other engineering majors, but it is still male dominated no matter where you go in the engineering school.”

Amanda Doyle, a fellow Computer Science major, agrees.

“I remember when I was applying…they made it very clear how much the school wanted an even percentage of men and women,” Doyle said. “I would say CSE specifically is still very male dominated at SMU but I don’t mind it all. It’s kind of fun to be an enigma.”

A 2012 National Center for Women and Information Technology study found that “there has been a 79 percent decline in the number of 1st year undergraduate women interested in a Computer Science major between 2000 and 2011.” And “1.4 million computer specialist job openings are expected in the U.S. by 2020, but only 30 percent of these positions are expected to be filled by U.S. computing graduates.”

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Computer and Information Science remains one of the lowest degrees females pursue. Photo credit: Mattie Lippe

But despite this disparity, Doyle has still had a positive experience.

“As far as being a woman in Lyle, I feel like the school has treated us equally,” Doyle said. “I’ve never felt as I’ve been treated any differently in any of my classes.”

In fact, Winslow admitted he is the one who feels disadvantaged.

“At least from my experience, employers are much more excited to interview a female computer scientist,” he said. “I don’t really have a problem with this though, because they are so rare. It makes sense that they want to try to find females.”

Lyle has taken up the gauntlet of gender disparity in engineering, and in turn has built an academic environment in which women like Klause not only feel welcome, but in which they can thrive. Lyle hopes to become the first engineering program in the nation to host an equal number of women and men, and Saloma believe Lyle is well on its way to reaching 50 percent women.

Saloma also explains how gender parity benefits all engineering students, not only females.

“It will provide a much richer educational experience and help the engineering community by introducing a wider variety of innovative ideas to solve the world’s most pressing problems,” Saloma said.

As Klause prepares to graduate, Lyle has laid down a promising path for her future.

“I am so thankful for how well the Lyle school did to prepare me for feeling valued as a woman in engineering,” Klause said.

She has signed with an oil and gas company in Dallas, and will be pursuing the 4+1 Masters Degree in Environmental Engineering here at SMU.

“Guess I just couldn’t get enough!” she said.


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