By Shawn Wright
The past decade has seen a pendulum shift in women enrolled in engineering degree programs at Michigan's four-year colleges and universities.
The trend is beginning to tick upward, albeit slightly, but not to a point where women can be considered anywhere equal to their male counterparts in the field.
Data compiled by the Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN) found that in 2012 the state had 8,776 females out of a total 48,458 students, or 18.1 percent, enrolled in engineering programs at four-year colleges and universities. That value is the median in enrollment share for women, between 17 percent and 19 percent, according to WIN's data.
In 2002, Michigan had the highest in recent history, 20 percent or 9,499 women enrolled. The lowest number came in 2010 with 7,870 women enrolled or 17.5 percent. The decline did not go unnoticed.
“We, just like everybody else around the country, saw a major drop-off,” said Judy Cordes, director for student success at Michigan State University's Women in Engineering program. “A couple of years ago, we had about 440 women in the college of engineering at the undergraduate level. But now, we have more than 700.”
MSU's Women in Engineering program was founded in 2007 with the idea of recruiting and retaining women in the field, with the mission to encourage women of all backgrounds to pursue careers in engineering.
Some of the goals include increasing the pool of qualified women who enter the university's engineering college and to assist in retaining students in their chosen academic programs. And much of this can be attributed to the state's advanced manufacturing history, in addition to its colleges or universities offering more engineering programs.
“The strange thing about Michigan is that we have 13 colleges of engineering, which is very unusual compared with other states that may have a couple,” Cordes said. “But those schools graduate larger numbers because there are only a couple of engineering schools. For example, in Indiana, Purdue University is the place to go. They have a huge number of women.”
As for majors, MSU does notice that its female contingent gravitates toward specific fields. Some of the more popular majors are biosystems engineering, chemical engineering and material science. The university also sees a lot of women going into mechanical engineering, which bucks the national number of only 4.5 percent employed in the field, according to WIN's data.
“We have a very high enrollment of women in mechanical engineering, but that's because of the state we live in,” Cordes said. “Many of these women choose mechanical because that's what they know and what their families came out of.”
Nationally, only about 11 percent or 306,000 out of a total 2.6 million engineering workers are women, according to WIN's data. MSU's Women in Engineering program, like many others, are working to introduce engineering as a career option to pre-college students. This, Cordes said, is crucial to getting more women in the field.
“We understand that we have to capture girls as young as fourth, fifth and sixth grade to keep them interested in math and science,” she said. “We're trying to pull them through the pipeline and keep their interest going. And then getting them into programs that would introduce them to engineering because a lot of them have no idea what it is.”
Young girls are not necessarily encouraged to be engineers, she said, but as the workforce increases with more women in the field, there will be more role models.
“Women have self-esteem and self-efficacy kinds of issues, where they might fail a test, think they're not smart enough and want to get out,” Cordes said. “We want them to realize that everyone struggles in engineering, at some point, and they're not unusual. We keep them focused on the positive and moving through the major.”