Our Strategy to Close the Gender Gap
How Dartmouth achieved an engineering class that’s 52 percent female.
Opinion by Joseph J. Helble
Before Hurricane Matthew barreled up the East Coast last fall, Dartmouth engineering graduate Anna Stork prepared to help hundreds of thousands of people who were about to lose power. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Stork and business partner Andrea Sreshta had founded LuminAID, which patented a solar-powered, inflatable, floatable light for use in disasters. As Matthew moved north, the company made a public offer: For every one of the lights contributed to a charitable organization in need, LuminAID would add another one, free.
This kind of public-spirited innovation is essential to addressing societal needs in areas like energy, healthcare, and the environment, needs clearly outlined in the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering. But to do this effectively, we need to educate increasing numbers of talented and creative engineers, drawn from all corners of society.
While the number of U.S. engineering bachelor’s degree recipients likely exceeded 100,000 in 2016 for the first time, the gender breakdown of these graduates has changed little in more than a decade. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women earned just 19 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2015. With such a small percentage of women, we are failing to capture a substantial share of the talent needed to address these grand challenges.
In contrast to this static national picture, however, substantial change has quietly taken place at several institutions. For example, in 2014-2015, the majority of computer science majors at Harvey Mudd were women, and Yale University awarded more than 40 percent of its undergraduate engineering degrees to women. Last spring, Dartmouth awarded 52 percent of its undergraduate engineering degrees to women, becoming the first comprehensive national research university to achieve gender parity in engineering.
At Dartmouth, we didn’t reach this milestone by focusing narrowly on perceived interests of our female students. What we sought to create instead was an environment and a culture that exposed the broadest and most diverse group of students—male and female—to the beauty of engineering as a way to tackle the world’s challenges. Our efforts worked: Because of the increased interest in engineering, we doubled the size of our engineering school and graduated a class of engineers with slightly more women than men.
While institutional context matters and there is no simple recipe, we attribute our success in both diversity and student retention to broad strategies that maximize student choice. These have included:
- Giving students flexible pathways to enter and explore engineering. At Dartmouth, students first explore a liberal arts-based engineering curriculum before pursuing an ABET-accredited, traditional engineering discipline. They quickly learn that a collection of tools—not a singular discipline—is needed to solve contemporary challenges.
- Encouraging students to see engineering as a collaborative enterprise in which diverse perspectives yield the greatest innovations.
- Placing a premium on hands-on, project-based learning—from the very first engineering class—where students develop solutions to problems they care about.
- Providing all Dartmouth students the opportunity to take entry-level engineering design classes, alongside engineering majors, and exposing them to the creative elements of engineering without making them commit to the major. This helps diversify the engineering “classroom” far more quickly than one can diversify the engineering “major.”
- Building a program that produces true innovators. Not only do we teach our students critical problem-solving and technical skills, we also provide them with a liberal arts education, giving them an opportunity to explore their passions and build a deeper understanding of the world they will serve.
- Encouraging first-year women and men to explore engineering by working directly with a faculty mentor.
- Hiring faculty and staff who are great teachers, leaders in their scholarly fields, and often entrepreneurs, who engage students in their labs or startups taking on important societal challenges in medicine, energy, imaging, communications, information security, robotics, and many other important societal challenges.
- Building a diverse population of role models for students at all levels, from faculty to staff to review boards to student teaching assistants, and enabling our female students to interact with successful mentors from their very first class.
We are enormously proud of our graduates, like Stork and her colleagues, who are creating innovations to improve society. And we’re proud of everyone at Dartmouth for proving that it is indeed possible to close the engineering gender gap.
Joseph Helble, dean of engineering at Dartmouth College, currently chairs the Public Policy Committee of the Engineering Deans Council.