Consistently ranked as home to one of the world’s top engineering programs, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is often seen as a model for its undergraduate education programs and research output. However, the school leads in another important way: the Institute also boasts one of the most gender-balanced STEM-oriented undergraduate student bodies in the world.
This study helps illuminate the ways in which the Department of Mechanical Engineering has reached near parity in its female undergraduate population: in 2016, women comprised 49.5% of mechanical engineering majors. In contrast, women numbered less than a third of undergraduate mechanical engineering majors back in 2000. In 2016, a cross section of mechanical engineering faculty and staff was interviewed to evaluate how the department has changed over the past 15 years to make the place a much more welcoming program for women now. In addition to the faculty members, the MIT Dean of Admissions was interviewed to understand how the university selects the pool of available undergraduate women who choose to major in mechanical engineering in the first place. Quotes from interviewees are first contextualized, and then interspersed with insights from background research.
Thematic analysis of interviews reveals that the gender equality so far achieved by the department has been a result of very deliberate, enduring structural changes, (e.g., hiring processes), and a strong representation of proactive department members with high levels of self-efficacy. These members are aware of gender equity issues, believe in their ability to enact change, and are willing to devote the time and energy to do so. Different but complementary actions, from changing the way the admissions office recruits applicants to broadening the faculty hiring searches, have compounded over time to help produce the current state of near parity in the undergraduate population.
It is hoped that the findings in this paper can help other institutions adopt strategies that will lead to improved gender balance in their engineering programs.
Kath Xu is a Class of 2016 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she studied mechanical engineering. She will join the Yale Law School Class of 2020 in the fall.
Dr. Dawn Wendell is an engineer whose past projects range from BattleBots robots to medical devices, for which she holds several patents. She received four degrees from MIT including a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. She worked as a fluid mechanics researcher in Paris, France before returning to MIT as Assistant Director of Admissions. Currently Dr. Wendell works as a Senior Lecturer in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering teaching design, manufacturing, and instrumentation.
Andrea Walsh is a historical sociologist who specializes in the fields of women's and gender studies, rhetoric and communication and visual media. She teaches at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the programs in Women's and Gender Studies and Writing and Comparative Media Studies.
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