When Christine Pageau tells people her major, she tends to get strange reactions: raised eyebrows, interjections and awkward pauses. Many people are shocked to find out that she is a junior in civil engineering because, well, she is a girl. Pageau just laughs it off. Yes, she is a woman who doesn’t mind calculus or getting a little dirty working on a construction site.
Yet, she is not surprised by people’s reactions. She is, after all, majoring in a male-dominated profession. According to Judy Cordes, director of the women in engineering program at MSU, only 16 percent of MSU engineering students are women, even though nearly 54 percent of undergraduates are female. Women are in the minority in engineering, and they know it.
Pageau has a core group of three to four girls in her major. They tend to stick together and sit with each other in class. “The guys generally tend to think we’re smarter just because we’re girls in that area, which is usually not the case,” said Pageau. “But it’s not so bad. I think they’re kind of intimidated because they’re used to being with all guys.”
Cordes said engineering classes range from five to 15 percent women, varying by major. Chemical, material science and biosystems engineering have the highest amount of women, while computer, electrical and computer science have the lowest.
Senior mechanical engineering major Eva Reiter has been the only woman in class a few times, but she gets along well with the men. A lot of the same students have been in her classes over the years, so she has become friends with many of them. Despite the lack of females, Reiter feels comfortable in school. “It’s not too bad being the only girl in class,” Reiter said. “You don’t really get treated differently.” Though, she does feel like, as a woman, she needs to work harder and be at the top of her game in order to compete.
Cordes thinks that female students sometimes put the pressure to work harder on themselves. “But I think there are some expectations that to be as good as the guys they have to work harder and perform better because they are carrying the weight of all the women,” Cordes said. “It helps them with the acceptance by the rest of their peers.”
Not all women in the college agree. Junior mechanical engineering major Rachel Maurer says she likes her classes and finds that everybody always helps each other out. She has never had anyone be rude to her because she is female. “It may even be the opposite,” she said. “Teachers are extra nice, and some of the guys might help me out, and they won’t help anyone else out. So far I’ve had no problems.”
The overall climate for women engineers seems comfortable for students at MSU. Cordes does not hear many complaints from female students about mistreatment. “I’m sure there’s things that happen, but it’s not like it’s a chronic problem all the time,” she said. While women seem to feel content in the college, they may still reach out to other female students for support.
Society of Sisters
Since it can be difficult for students to find other women in their major, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) brings women together. The MSU chapter of the national organization has the mission to help women achieve their full potential. Approximately 50 students are involved, including some men.
Cordes said that having an organization for women is a good way for them to support each other. “It’s very foreign to most women when they come into a classroom or a situation and they may be the only woman, and it’s a difficult major,” said Cordes. “So between those two things sometimes they need extra support or extra incentive to keep going.”
SWE offers an opportunity for women to make friends, form study groups and hear from different companies. “Women don’t tend to leave engineering because they aren’t doing well,” said Cordes. “They tend to leave because they can’t connect to it or can’t relate to it, so this group helps them relate to their major.”
Most of the members of SWE are very active, but Pageau has found that the group is not the best way for her to adapt to the engineering world. “In SWE you’re kind of learning to talk with other girls,” she said. “Yeah it’s good to do, but it’s not how the real world is going to be – with all women. I wanted to do more clubs that were with guys because I need to be more comfortable working with guys.”
Many women face more obstacles in the workforce than at school. Cordes said that women often feel more pressure when they get out into the real world. “I think the working engineering arena is very different from the school experience,” she said.
Reiter has had three different internships, and each company had different amounts of women and respect. She hasn’t experienced any blatant discrimination, but interning at an oil refinery last summer put her in a tougher climate. “There was a little bit of resistance by some of the older skill workers to kind of communicate with you,” said Reiter.
Pageau interned at an asphalt plant with very few women. She would experience little “cutesy things” like being called “girlfriend” by the truckers. “It’s not a huge deal, but people definitely treat you differently,” she said. “You just have to learn to stand your ground and show that you’re there for a reason and that you worked hard to get there.”
Women’s experiences differ greatly by company. Maurer interned for a biomedical company where about half the employees were women. Everybody was friendly and she got along well with all the employees. She has found that many companies are looking to recruit more women. “A lot of them are happy to see that I’m female, that I have experience and have a good GPA,” she said. “I actually think that it gives women kind of a boost.”
Cordes said that being female may give students a little bit of an edge, but they still have to be very qualified. “It’s not just an automatic at all,” she said. “That idea to get [a job] just because you’re a woman is not true.”
Female engineering role models are scarce within the college. Many students have never had a female professor, pushing some students to look outside of school to find mentors. When Reiter had an internship at an aviation company, both her boss and her boss’ boss were female. Seeing women in charge inspired her.
“I have found quite a few women in engineering that prove that you can work your butt off and put in the effort, but you can also do it with a smile on your face and be respectful to the people around you,” said Reiter. “Meeting all of those people has helped.”
Many women look up to female engineers who can balance a career and a family. Reiter said work-life management is a challenge for male and female engineers, but she sees it as a greater challenge for women. “You are faced with that ‘OK if I want to have kids, how is that going work out with day care?’” she said. “Obviously I’m only 22. I’m not quite there yet, but I know that it’s something that I’ve thought about and something that I know is going to be a challenge.”
Even in college, engineers do not have much free time for a social life. It’s not unheard of for students to clock 60 to 80 hours in the Engineering Building weekly.
When Reiter finds time to go out, her friends have told her not to talk about her major with boys. “I joke around with my girlfriends that it’s the fastest way to get a guy to run away from you,” she said. She finds that it takes a strong-willed man to hang out with a bunch of engineering women who are surrounded by men daily. “I can talk like a pirate if I have to and boss around people twice my size,” she said. “But if a guy is intimidated by a fact that you’re an engineer, you probably shouldn’t be dating him anyway.”
Likewise, Pageau has found that when she talks to guys about her major, it can be unsettling. “I think the idea of a girl being on top can be intimidating,” said Pageau. “So they are kind of shocked. I think it has a huge effect on them.”
Why So Lonely?
While the number of women in engineering has increased dramatically over the past decades, men still greatly outnumber them. In fact, Cordes said the number of women enrolled at MSU has dropped 6 percent over the last seven to 10 years, following a national trend. The reason for lack of female participation continues to perplex women in the field.
One reason may be that girls are not pushed into engineering. Cordes said, “They’re not encouraged by their teachers, by their counselors or by their parents necessarily because they don’t really know what engineering is so they don’t think about it traditionally as a female role or career.” Many women interested in science and math are choosing other routes such as medicine.
Reiter only realized engineering was a career option for her when she attended a conference in high school that showed women different careers in science. “I think if I hadn’t have had that, I wouldn’t have come to Michigan State knowing that I wanted to be an engineer for sure,” she said.
Many women might not be interested because they do not understand the applications of engineering. Cordes thinks that some women cannot connect to it or see how it can make a difference in the world. “Women tend to want to have a career that’s going to help people, to help society or to help the environment and it’s very hard for them, sadly, to see how something like computer science or electrical engineering is going to help; yet, it does.”
Population might also be a factor. The size of the engineering college has gone down overall. Cordes has been trying to figure out why there is a lack of female engineers for a long time. “If I could answer that question, I would be in Washington,” she said. “It’s a very hard question, and we just don’t know.” For now, Cordes will continue to recruit students like Pageau who have a love for math and don’t mind hanging out with the guys.