Increasing the Number of Women Engineers
Sonya Smith talks about what can be done to increase retention of women in engineering.
C.G.: You were the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia mechanical and aerospace engineering program. What was that journey like for you, and do you feel today’s women face the same challenges?
Sonya Smith: The journey was challenging but also very rewarding. I think that women now face some of the same challenges. I think the main challenge now is keeping them in mechanical engineering. Universities today consistently award the most significant number of undergraduate degrees to women mechanical engineers, but we're losing them in the masters and doctoral degrees. And that's not to say that everyone wants to get a doctoral degree. But we do want to maintain the faculty representation for women in engineering and women achieving Ph.Ds. So, I think the challenge is making sure that women stay within these post-graduate programs.
C.G.: Currently, you serve as the Women and Engineering ProActive Network president. What brought you to WEPAN, and what has your mission as president been?
S.S: Historically, there have been very few women in engineering serving as program directors and WEPAN as the organization for women in engineering that hold program director roles. It has broadened and now includes women engineers that work in industry, academia, government labs, etc. I wanted to participate and lead WEPAN into its next evolution. My mission, while president, is to broaden WEPAN’s footprint, and we've done that by partnering with the Advance Resource and Coordination (ARC) Network and Amplifying the Alliance to Catalyze Change for Equity in STEM Success (ACCESS+). Both of these organizations look to achieve gender equality within STEM. I can't take credit for that as we have an exciting and wonderful team.
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C.G.: Women in mechanical engineering make up a small percentage. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, they only make up eight percent of the professional community; why do you feel this number is so low currently and what can be done to increase this number to see a higher representation?
S.S: I think several things contribute to the low number of mechanical engineers. One of the reasons is that mechanical engineering is very broad. And so at the educational level, what I've observed sometimes is that students are interested in one aspect of mechanical engineering, for example, biomedical engineering, and they feel for them to participate or be employed in this field, they need a biomedical degree. They end up leaving the field of mechanical engineering. As a discipline, we do not do a good job informing students that you can be a mechanical engineer and be employed in the biomedical field. I also think the culture and climate for women in engineering, mainly mechanical engineering, can be very challenging. If a department treats its women faculty poorly, the students see that, and they say maybe I don't want to be a faculty member. If we can have some accountability for climate and culture, that would help increase our numbers.
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C.G.: In your efforts to expand the role of women in academia, what has been the most successful in creating a higher retention rate?
S.S: From my experience, making sure that women, who start as junior faculty, have a community they can rely on. That's made a massive difference in the advanced institutions. By having access to and from that community, you get access to formal and informal resources. Bringing women together and creating a community to help each other has been very effective.
C.G. How can we highlight some of these problems and barriers to the larger engineering community?
S.S: It is important to understand that the larger engineering community is mainly male. We must engage our male allies, which may be a party to conversations and resources that women are not. We need our male allies to speak up in favor of women in engineering and demand equal participation.
Carlos M. González is an independent writer in New York City.