By Rebecca Carballo
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Women comprise 28 percent of the students majoring in engineering at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. That number is higher than the national average of 19.3 percent, according to a 2016 report by the National Science Foundation.
Kathryn Baisley, a junior studying to be a mechanical engineer at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, remembers walking into her physics class in her freshman year and noticing that only four out of about 25 students were women.
She often found herself working with what she called the “girl group” during her labs.
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“It would just happen that way,” Baisley said. “Sometimes when you work with guys, they try to run the show.”
Women comprise 28 percent of the students majoring in engineering at MSOE. That number is higher than the national average of 19.3 percent, according to a 2016 report by the National Science Foundation.
The percentage of women is smaller still at the industry level: College-educated women accounted for 15 percent of engineers, the report said.
That number may seem low, but it actually suggests progress. In 1993, only 8.6 percent of engineers were women.
However, Baisley still noticed the gender gap at her first internship. Her supervisors often went golfing or worked out with the male interns. Baisley was never invited.
“It was kind of a boys club,” Baisley said. “I wanted to network with them, but it wasn’t the type of thing you invite yourself to.”
Baisley isn’t the only one to notice the gender disparity. When Becca Keller stepped on campus at MSOE her freshman year, she noticed the “swarm of guys.” Now, as a senior studying industrial engineering, it doesn’t even faze her.
“Everyone is pretty used to it,” Keller said. “We even make jokes about it sometimes.”
Keller said her experience as a kicker on her high school football team helped her adjust to the all-male environment.
For Baisley, the lack of diversity remains a concern.
“I wish I wouldn’t second-guess it because I’m nervous about going into a career that makes me feel out of place,” Baisley said.
Baisley says it is too late for her to choose another career path, and she adds that her enthusiasm for math drives her. She enjoys pursuing a career that allows her to see math’s practical application in the real world.
Mikaela Mohaupt, an electrical engineer at Graef USA, a Milwaukee-based engineering consulting firm, said if the industry wants to see an increase in women, it needs to change how women are treated.
Before working at Graef, Mohaupt said, she had two incidences of workplace harassment, one verbal, the other sexual.
“A lot of people think that telling girls that they can do math and science is enough,” Mohaupt said. “That is not enough. We have to adjust how we address women in this field.”
Female retention is a problem for the engineering industry, Mohaupt noted. She said it’s helpful working at a company that understands she is a parent.
Mohaupt said her supervisors are understanding if she needs to leave work to tend to her son. She recently was able to leave for a brief period to attend a program at her son’s school.
“I’m a mom, not just a mom, a really good mom, and I’m single,” Mohaupt said. “Because Graef is so forward-thinking and accepting of me wanting to be a good mom and engineer, I am able to do both.”
Kristina Ropella, the first female dean of engineering at Marquette University, said the industry must become more understanding and accommodating to different lifestyles in order to become more diverse.
“If we are going to serve the world, we need to look like the world we serve,” Ropella said.
It is important to have a female perspective because the products that engineers design are used by women, Ropella said. She used airbags and seat belts as examples.
The first airbags installed in cars were designed to accommodate the average American male. It wasn’t until 2000 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration required safety tests to use female dummies.
The lack of a female voice isn’t only apparent in product design, but in the workplace as a whole, Ropella said.
That’s why more women need to be in senior engineering positions, she said.
One such woman is Lori Rosenthal, who is the vice president, on the board of directors and Milwaukee Facilities Group leader at Graef. Rosenthal said she has always had a support system in her career.
Rosenthal recalls that when she was a young engineer on a project site, she was a bit intimidated. The construction manager made it clear to those on site she was in charge, Rosenthal said.
“He told them, ‘You don’t change anything without talking to her,'” Rosenthal said. “That made my job easier. Maybe he did that because I am female. Or maybe it was just because I was young.”
Rosenthal added that it would be nice to see more women in her field, but it’s difficult because there is not always a diverse applicant pool.
The crux of the problem is there are not enough young girls in the engineering talent pipeline, Ropella said.
Marquette University hosts Girls Who Code, a weekly coding class, to introduce girls in grade school through high school to the engineering design process.
It’s a complex issue and difficult to pinpoint a specific reason as to why more young girls are not interested in engineering, Ropella said.
“It could be how we talk about professions with children, the kind of toys we buy and the experiences we expose them to,” Ropella said.
She thinks part of the problem is that young women do not always hear positive feedback on their math skills.
“Too often I hear young women in high school and middle school say, ‘I’m not good at math,'” Ropella said. “I think sometimes even their own teachers speak that.”
At the K-12 level, male students were more likely than female students to take engineering (3 percent male vs. 1 percent female) and computer science courses (7 percent vs. 4 percent), according to a 2016 report by the National Science Foundation.
These statistics haven’t discouraged Shriya Punati and Pallavi Kandipati. These two Milwaukee-area middle school students plan on pursuing careers as engineers.
Along with their teammate, Pranav Iyer, they were the winners of the Wisconsin Regional Future City Competition, which took place at MSOE’s Kern Center in January. In the contest, middle school students plan out and create an imaginary city.
Kandipati has heard people say women do not do as well as men in math or science, but she remains undaunted.
“I want to dispel those stereotypes,” Kandipati said.