Female engineering numbers surpass national average

Tara Powers

Villanova’s College of Engineering has one of the highest percentages of female faculty and students, according to recent national statistics.

Eighteen percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty are female, while the national average is 12.3 percent. Of the approximately 890 full-time undergraduate engineering students, 23 percent are female.

The 2008 national average of women undergraduates enrolled in engineering is 17.9 percent, and women make up 31 percent of Villanova’s freshman engineering class.

The College of Engineering first admitted women in 1958, 10 years before the University became fully coeducational. It is now nationally ranked, coming in at No. 10 in U.S. News and World Report for engineering colleges offering their highest degrees for bachelor or master level students. The past 50 years have brought a great deal of change to the college, particularly in the makeup of its student body.

“If you look at the history of engineering, it is mostly dominated by white males,” said Gary Gabriele, dean of the College of Engineering. “The problem the country is facing is a growing shortage of engineers. The engineering population has aged and fewer students are choosing engineering versus other fields.”

In light of this, the College of Engineering has reached out to minorities and women, two groups that have not traditionally chosen engineering.

“It’s important to have a more diverse engineering profession not dominated by the white male perspective,” Gabriele said. “The problems engineers are facing and will face become more and more complex, such as issues of environment and energy. The best engineering force to attack those problems is one that comes from a lot of different viewpoints.”

Amy Fleischer graduated from the College of Engineering in 1991 and is now an associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering.

“I think it can only make the program stronger,” Fleischer said of the increased presence of women in engineering. “The more people you get, the more diverse the student body is, and the more innovative solutions you have to design products. Better diversity makes for a better outcome.”

One of the goals the College of Engineering has set for itself is to diversify its faculty in both gender and ethnicity so that role models exist for engineering students. Villanova’s engineering faculty represent China, Korea, India and the United States, among other nations.

Fleischer cited the presence of women at open house events as one of the college’s strengths.

“A lot of the women participate in the open houses, which makes us more visible and helps attract students,” Fleischer said.

“We rely on the students a lot for our open houses,” Gabriele added. “Women engineering students occupy a lot of our leadership positions within the college, so they’re very visible at these events.”

The general University community is also a draw for prospective female engineers.

“Another important contributing factor is Villanova itself, the kind of place Villanova is,” Gabriele said. “The relationships our students have with faculty make this a more inviting place for women students.”

“So far, I have had one female engineering professor at Villanova,” junior Christina Rosati said. “It really has had a positive impact on me.  Just knowing that a woman can get the respect she deserves and become a leading technical influence in the field is encouraging and inspiring.”

“As a student, that was one of the things that drew me here as well,” Fleisher said. “Being able to be around other female engineers and have that support system within the program makes a big difference in retention rates.”

Gabriele also stressed the importance of the well-rounded engineering student.

“We expect our students to have that broader view of engineering and its relationships to other areas,” he said. “Our students actually take courses in the other colleges at the University.”

Service learning is another part of the Villanova experience that plays a role in making the College of Engineering unique. Engineering students are part of projects in Waslala, Honduras, the Philippines and Africa that draw on their specific talents in service to others.

“I think one of the things that draws women into engineering is the ability to use our technical skills to benefit other people,” Fleischer said. “I think Villanova, in particular, does a great job of showing that aspect of engineering that appeals to people.”

“Students see how the skills you get in an engineering curriculum can be applied to solving difficult problems and helping other people,” Gabriele said. “Women students are attracted to that commitment: that it’s not just science and technology, but the application to solving problems that significantly improve people’s lives.”

The ability to participate in service learning is not only attractive to students but to faculty as well.

“I think that’s one of the things that draws faculty here, particularly the service learning aspects and interfacing with the students,” Flesicher said. “Engineering here is more of a social practice. Working with students and creating relationships really appeals to women and especially drew me back as a faculty member.”

“I also think the culture at Villanova is something that I noticed immediately,” Rosati said. “There’s such a welcoming atmosphere, and it’s clear that everyone around you wants to succeed together, rather than at the expense of others.  It’s an atmosphere that I really thrive in.”

However, the College of Engineering will not be content with its current success.

“We’re hoping that that success will breed more success,” Gabriele said. “Most female students are in chemical, environmental or civil engineering so we’re hoping to increase the numbers in mechanical and electrical and computer engineering. That’s our next challenge.”