Engineering students and faculty respond to University efforts to bridge gender and minority gap

Enrollment by gender in various schools within the University

Enrollment by gender in various schools within the University Buy this photo
Anjali Alangaden

 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016 - 9:32pm

“When I was deciding to do computer science, one of the main reasons that I didn’t want to do it was I never saw myself as the computer science type because I think that type is typically male,” LSA junior Kayla Fedewa said. “That was one of the main things that was holding me back.”

Fedewa, vice president of the student organization Girls in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, said she is one of many females associated with the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering and computer science programs who is affected by a lack of female enrollment and lack of support for females within the programs. Because of this, Fedewa said she was weary when first looking into the program.

“You really have to be strong, I feel like, to be in the program in a way that you don’t have to be in other programs,” Fedewa said.

Though Fedewa said she feels she can speak her mind and gain access to the same opportunities male students have, other female students do not feel the same.

Betsy Brown, a recent doctoral graduate from the Chemistry Department and previous co-vice president of the student organization Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering and the Sciences, said she struggled with deciding on a major because of the overwhelmingly male populations in certain Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) departments, adding that stayed away from the more male-dominated fields that left her feeling uncomfortable.

“I avoided situations that might make me feel like that,” Brown said. “I felt more comfortable in a more heterogeneous situation where it wasn’t all men.”

Brown agreed with Fedewa and said it can be a challenge for women to feel comfortable and self-assured in these fields.

“As a woman in science, it’s harder to find the confidence that doesn’t seem to be a problem for male peers,” Brown said. “In talking with (other women), I’ve heard a lot more self-doubt than I did with talking to our male counterparts.”

Fedewa and Brown have both been successful in their departments as student leaders of their organizations, but they and other students have faced much adversity based not only on gender, but race as well.

Enrollment

According to the University Enrollment by Program, Location, Ethnicity and Gender Report as of Winter 2016, a total of 8,723 students were enrolled in the College of Engineering — with 2,206 females and 6,517 males.

Minority students have less representation in the College of Engineering than females. Of the total undergraduate students enrolled as of last fall, 3,307 were white, 1,002 were Asian, 296 were Hispanic and only 138 were Black, according to the Office of the Registrar Ethnicity Report.


“In a lot of ways, ethnic diversity is a bigger problem than gender diversity,” Fedewa said.

In an already white-male-dominated field — despite the increase of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math programs geared toward females and minorities — the question is raised as to what exactly these figures mean for the College of Engineering.

Faculty and Staff

Faculty and staff positions at the University as a whole have traditionally been male-dominated. According to the Faculty Headcount report as of March 30, 2016, of total professor positions, 73 percent were held by males and 27 percent were held by females. Only 20 percent were held by minorities.

Though more associate professor positions were given to females and minorities — with 63 percent being held by males, 37 percent held by females and 30 percent being held by minorities — this information sheds light on an obvious gap.

Seventy-five percent of all faculty and staff at the Ann Arbor campus as of November 2015 were white, according to the University Human Capital Reporting Tool Demographic Trends — a slight decrease from 76.6 percent in 2011. The report also indicated 54.7 percent of all faculty and staff were male, with 45.3 percent female. This, too, was more balanced with gender representation than in 2011.


Noemi Mirkin — a faculty adviser for the University chapter of the Association for Women in Science who has been at the University for over 30 years — said she has experienced sexism in the past, particularly as a physicist, but she added that she’s seen an improvement in recent years.

“There’s this feeling that’s called subtle sexism, and what it is is it’s a form of exclusion: collegial exclusion,” Mirkin said. “Women are made to feel invisible or unimportant, either through physical, social or professional isolation. I did feel that in many instances where you’re not taken seriously or whatever, I would say, if a man said it, it was OK. If I said it, it was like I was invisible. I think that that has changed. It mostly has changed because there are more women — even though we haven’t reached a critical mass in some places, there are more women — and so it’s a lot harder to discard them.”


While the University has been making efforts to improve the campus climate, there is room for improvement with the consideration of females and minorities, especially in collaboration with University President Mark Schlissel’s new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan. Efforts have included increasing student discussion and the creation of a strategic plan.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

According to the Office of the Registrar Total Enrollment Overview, only 4.82 percent of incoming freshman in fall 2015 were Black — a number that has remained fairly consistent in recent years. Last September, Schlissel formally launched a planning process to improve Diversity, Equity and Inclusion on campus. The DEI campaign comes in wake of requests for an increase in Black student enrollment following the #BBUM campaign, an initiative started by the Black Student Union in 2013 to draw attention to issues of race and diversity on campus.

“Dedication to academic excellence for the public good is inseparable from our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Schlissel said at the diversity summit held September 9, which aimed to create dialogue about creating a more inclusive campus. “We cannot be excellent without being diverse in the broadest sense of that word.”


At the summit, Schlissel highlighted the importance of enhancing diversity, which, according to him, depends on collaboration between the University administration and each department on campus.

Robert Scott, director of the University’s Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach, said each college within the University has its own unique plan to increase diversity, equity and inclusion through a series of programs, recruitment methods and strategies aimed at improving the racial climate on campus.

“(Diversity) goes beyond ethnicity and gender to also sexual orientation, able-bodiedness, personality, socioeconomic status, international status, et cetera,” Scott said. “We know for a fact that the College of Engineering is a much better learning environment if we have a rich mix of different kinds of diversity. So that’s the first part: what is our mix and what can we do within the legal constraints of the law to make it as rich and as broad as possible?”

Scott said being diverse and equitable does not guarantee that every student or faculty member feels comfortable, adding that this is the reason behind the initiative’s additional focus on inclusion.

“Our strategic plan looks at our diversity mix, our processes and our climate and our setting goals and objectives to try to improve on those so we can ultimately be a role model college within the University for creating an academic learning environment that is very holistic,” Scott said. “There’s no question that, because of the Center, we’ve been able to bring a number of programs forward that has helped increase the diversity as well as improve the academic learning experience for students from various backgrounds.”

Across campus, there have been mixed reactions to the plan.

Engineering junior Martin Safie, president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, said that while he’s aware he is in the minority in the mechanical engineering program, he does not think he has been denied any of the opportunities his white male peers have been given.

“I personally don’t feel marginalized in the school,” Safie said. “One of the benefits of the (society) is that we actually get certain benefits over the rest of the college. We have our own private (career) fair with the National Society of Black Engineers.”

Likewise, students are taking diversity matters into their own hands, with other organizations and support groups aimed at bringing together those with similar struggles like the gender gap in STEM. For example, computer science senior Kelly Henckel, marketing officer for GEECS, said her organization focuses on providing a support and networking service for students passionate about women pursuing STEM fields.

“We have a lot of company options and networking opportunities, which can be especially helpful given that a lot of times maybe women feel less confident when looking into big, more competitive companies,” Henckel said. “(We are) providing networking options to alleviate some of that.”

Henckel, also the founding president of Women in Aeronautics and Astronautics, the first student organization of its kind on campus, said organizations like WAA and GEECS are crucial in encouraging female enrollment in the engineering departments and providing support for those struggling with confidence.

“Our real focus is just to develop a community for the women who are involved within aerospace engineering and to help to connect them to women who are successful in the industry in kind of a mentorship-type relationship so that they might not feel under so much pressure as being often times one of two or three girls in classes out of 50,” Henckel said.

Engineering senior Gregory McMurtry, president of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), said he participated in several of the University’s programs prior to his freshman year — including the Summer College Engineering Experience Program and MSTEM, an organization aimed at increasing diversity in STEM — and said these programs were beneficial. However, McMurtry said he believes NSBE and other student organizations are necessary for minority populations on campus, as there are still strides to be made with regard to diversity and inclusion, as the University community awaits the implementation of President Schlissel’s DEI plan.  

“They are in a sense tied up with what they’re allowed to do because there’s certain laws saying that you’re only allowed to target helping minorities in a certain way, and if you cross the line it becomes a legal matter, and it becomes some sort of a barrier for colleges,” McMurtry said. “Moving forward, the biggest thing that the University can do to effectively do this is to do what they’re doing currently with NSBE: just forming partnerships with student organizations that are on the same page and are working towards the same effort at the University to help increase the minority and diversity presence on campus.”

Future of Engineering with Women and Minorities

Even with DEI plans in place, it is hard to tell where the future of engineering and science lies with women and minorities.

Engineering Dean David Munson said in an interview with the Daily that female enrollment is low but continues to increase each year.

“There are many, many components to diversity, and people need to understand that we’re not only worried about having some appropriate percentage of women or appropriate percentage of underrepresented minorities, we’re concerned about students who are first-generation college students, students who are from families of low socioeconomic status, military veterans, students who are from the LGBT community,” Munson said.

Munson said the University’s percentages of female enrollment are usually higher than other universities and added that the College of Engineering is taking many different approaches to continue to increase this, such as joint programs with high schools, camp programs and a particular focus on recruitment.

“But that’s a very competitive space because every single engineering school wants more women students,” Munson said.

Munson said the University as a whole contributes to the College of Engineering’s efforts in emphasizing inclusivity and creating a comfortable and successful environment for all students and faculty.

“We would dearly love to see those numbers increase; we work very hard at student recruitment, but we also only want to recruit students who we’re convinced will be successful here, too, so that’s another part of the equation,” Munson said.

Scott said lack of diversity in higher education overall carries over to the University, making it challenging to draw from many different backgrounds.

“Our challenge has been the fact that we’re a microcosm of a larger society,” Scott said. “It used to be that we could draw much of our diversity from the state of Michigan, but with the state of school systems and a number of areas within the state, that’s not possible. So we’ve had to go nationwide in our recruitment of top talent from diverse backgrounds. Now we’re competing with all kinds of schools.”

Despite these efforts, McMurtry said he has heard derogatory comments from other students regarding race.

“You’ll have students who will be like, ‘if I was Black, I probably would have gotten a scholarship here’ … basically saying part of the only reason that you’re here is because you’re Black and it’s only to get that diversity component to the University, and they ignore your accomplishments,” McMurtry said.


Fedewa said she has also experienced biases in the classroom.

“I was in this one group of all-male computer science students, and one of the guys would only ever ask me to take notes and none of the other guys,” Fedewa said, which she believed meant they did not think she was fit to take part in the group.

Fedewa said she believes the University could do more to encourage women throughout the entirety of their academic careers.

“The intro classes have a far higher proportion of women than the advanced classes, so a lot of those women are dropping out of the program,” Fedewa said, adding this early stage especially needs University support.

Engineering graduate student Aeriel Murphy, a member of the Movement of Underrepresented Sisters in Engineering and Science organization on campus, said she feels both her race and gender created barriers in her undergraduate education at another university, something she had not experienced throughout high school.

“It wasn’t until I was an undergrad that it really started to affect me,” Murphy said. “My senior year of college, I had a professor say to the class, ‘don’t let the women be in the same group together because women have a hard time getting things done’ … I got a newfound strength, and it was an eye-opener which I’m glad I got in a sense, because it was like, ‘OK, everyone’s not about gender equality and everyone’s not going to be supportive.’ ”

Murphy said she has seen less of this discrimination as a graduate student, but admitted it has still been challenging.

“When you’re in groups with guys and you’re the only girl, you’re second-guessing what you’re saying and having to constantly prove that you’re just as smart or even smarter than they are,” Murphy said.

In the same way, after switching into engineering her sophomore year, Henckel said she felt pressure to prove herself. However, she does not attribute the obstacle to the University.

“I feel like the greatest enemy has been my own confidence, not necessarily environmental obstacles or social obstacles, at least within the University of Michigan,” she said.

The debate remains as to what the right balance is for female and minority students trying to gain momentum in engineering.

Affirmative Action

In response to these problems at universities and in workplaces, affirmative action policies have been set in place. Affirmative action policies favor those who have been discriminated against or disadvantaged and are often enforced through mandatory quota programs in public institutions.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Michigan’s affirmative action ban in 2006, known as Proposal 2, prohibited preferential treatment to individuals based on criteria such as race and gender. Though the ban was overturned in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually upheld the original Proposal 2 decision in 2014.

Henckel said she does not support affirmative action or quotas, despite being a female in a STEM program herself.

“By going public with something like affirmative action, then people are able to write off women and minorities in engineering as being there because they are a woman or a minority and not because of their talent,” Henckel said. “Something I’ve always argued for (instead) is having professor office hours specifically targeted towards women and minorities.”

Mirkin said she believes the programs the University already has in place will work as long as the University remains vigilant, but she does not believe quotas are the solution — especially because of the use of these mandatory count systems in the past.

“Using the word ‘quota’ is not good because it has a lot of stigma associated with it,” Mirkin said. “The point is to have not a number, but to increase it, to be sure that search committees look at women candidates, that they explicitly look for women candidates.”

Murphy said she thinks universities need to focus on making their own environments more inclusive and exposing students to different cultural backgrounds before considering affirmative action programs.

“I don’t think just by having 2,000 more people of color you’re going to stop sexism and racism,” Murphy said. “Universities really should work to create inclusive environments. I mentor undergrads at Michigan that feel, ‘I come to these classes; I’m the only Black person; it’s hard for me to integrate into study groups.’ Engineering is a very teamwork field … these students feel very isolated.”