According to the United States Congress Joint Economic Committee, only 14 percent of engineers in the US are women. Furthermore, according to the National Science Foundation, women’s participation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields during their college careers remains well below that of men at all degree levels.
So, what is it like to be one of few women engineers at Chico State in the midst of this disparity? For the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), building solidarity and support is paramount to succeeding in the STEM fields.
“Until we see those numbers come up, we want [SWE] to be a place where those who have managed to stick around have a voice to share with others who are thinking about not sticking around,” said Angelina Teel Jonson (senior, Mechanical Engineering), president of SWE.
One of SWE’s main objectives is outreach to freshman and sophomore women who are interested in engineering degree programs, because it’s critical for them to feel like they have support.
“I’ve talked to so many professors over and over again about the return rate of women who start at 111 in engineering,” said SWE Vice President Kylee David (junior, Computer Science). “A lot of them do not continue on to 211, because they either feel like they can’t stand up against other people or their opinion wasn’t heard.”
In response to these concerns, Teel Jonson worked with a professor on a study that quantified the retention of students in the mechatronic and mechanical engineering programs. They found that less than a quarter of first-time freshmen graduate in six years, and women make up less than 10 percent of that sector.
“When you start, it’s hard enough,” Teel Jonson said. “And for whatever reason, women tend to not be attracted to these programs at all.”
SWE seeks to offset this current reality by providing opportunities for professional development and a support network for their college-age members.
“There’s a very small group of women [in engineering], so if we can all get together and really support each other, … it’s extremely empowering,” said SWE Public Relations Chair Salam Ali (senior, Mechanical Engineering). “[It’s powerful] to have this strong of a support structure behind you, to have people telling you, ‘You can do this. You got this. We can help you. Look at how many people have come before you.’”
For many of the members in the society, getting involved comes from a very personal place of not having been exposed to STEM growing up. For instance, Teel Jonson went to a liberal arts high school and didn’t take a physics class until college. This lack of exposure is what motivates SWE members to reach
out to local youth early, especially young female students, exposing them to STEM-related study and careers and giving them the chance that many of SWE’s members didn’t have.
One way SWE reaches out to young elementary and high school students is through their annual event, Imagineer Day, which took place on April 2 this year. Every year, SWE invites local K–6 students to participate in a series of hands-on workshops, labs, and activities that are all engineering-related. In the past, they have had 90 percent female participation and have since doubled their participant rate in four years. According to Teel Jonson, the kids get very excited and inspired, leaving with the notion that they got to be an engineer for a day.
“The community has really responded to Imagineer Day, specifically,” said Teel Jonson. “We have families returning and bringing back their kids; girls scouts troops always return. We’re always looking for new ways that we can implement that.”
In addition to hosting Imagineer Day once a year, the officers at SWE have been strategizing ways to engage local youth in a way that’s sustainable over a longer period of time. They have been experimenting with rolling out a long-term program that has consistent impact, versus Imagineer Day’s once-a-year influence.
A few years ago, SWE did Small Satellites for Secondary Students (S4), where they worked with high school students on a regular basis during weekends. According to Ali, after S4’s culmination, the program had a profound influence on parents and students alike.
“One of the parents came up to me and hugged me, crying, and said, ‘I’ve seen a dramatic change, a complete 180, in my daughter'” Ali said. “‘She’s working a lot harder in her classes, she’s more focused, and our relationship has gotten better because of this program.'”
The daughter confided in Ali as well, telling her that in a year’s time, Ali had changed her entire outlook on life, provided her with ways of thinking, of acting, of pursuing.
“I think that’s the biggest reason why we want to hit places that don’t have that opportunity or don’t have programs like this,” Ali said. “A simple ‘Yes, you can be in this program’ can change their entire lives.”
SWE is looking to expand on S4 with a program called “Femineers,” inspired by a successful program of five years now out of Cal Poly. Femineers will establish a connection with a middle school in the area, prioritizing underserved students who are lacking exposure to STEM fields. SWE wants to reach out to these students and start a consistent program with the same group of girls for three or four years at a time. Motivating youth to see their true potential is the ultimate goal.
Harnessing and channeling that motivation is key to inspiring change and empowering future women engineers.
“There is no road map for engineering,” Teel Jonson reflected. “We want to make a difference. We want to do something that’s creative. And hearing that from the other women, it’s really awesome knowing you’re not the only one.”