James Madison University

Women in Engineering: Through the Lens of Identity

By: Sydney Palese
Posted: February 4, 2013

PHOTO:Christina_DiMarinoThe college years are all about answering that timeless question: Who am I?

For many freshman women and minorities in engineering, this query is as much a part of their curriculum as physics and math.

Dr. Olga Pierrakos is studying how this question arises, and the way students answer it.

“The idea is how do students begin to identify with engineering?” Pierrakos said. “If the student identifies with being an engineer, the more likely they are to persist in the field.”

Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Broadening Participation Research Initiation Grants in Engineering (BRIGE) award, Dr. Pierrakos has spent four years along with several collaborators from James Madison University on the project titled, “Understanding Engineering Students through the Lens of Identity Theory – Implications for Recruitment and Retention.”  

Their research is focused on freshmen and has been a mix of both qualitative data, in the form of 30 interviews, and quantitative data, in the form of over 700 student surveys from JMU students and other universities.

The research team consists of faculty and graduate students from psychology and engineering, and one undergraduate math major, who was once an engineering major. The research is projected to end next summer.

Pierrakos described her motivation for initiating the research as wanting to understand why students chose engineering and/or why they leave engineering. She said that if this is understood, then other engineering programs “can come up with intervention and strategies to help strengthen engineering.”

Cindy McGrath, a math major and undergraduate research assistant on the project, was initially surprised by the topic when Pierrakos first approached her about the opportunity. She said that knowing the problem actually does exist in the field can help the team get to the root of the problem.

PHOTO: JMU StudentsThe central finding of the research is that many engineering students have several identities, whether they’re athletes, want to travel or learn another language, that make up the whole, or the “self.” Their identities also include gender and ethnicity.

She described the self as “the big picture” and explained that when students find themselves conflicted between these identities, they feel that they must make a decision about which roles they most identify with.

“If there is harmony … they will be able to identify more easily and be happy; [they] will be pleased with where [they] are,” Pierrakos said. “If there is conflict, there is misalignment.”

So far, the research has shown that there is a huge difference in how male, female and minority-engineering students perceive their identity as an engineer.

“If you’re one of two females in an engineering class then the conflict is there,” said Pierrakos. “An African American in a class doesn’t see themself as an engineer; they see themself as a minority.

“It is easier for men to identify with engineering because they don’t think of being a man and being an engineer – there is no conflict”

Another finding from the extensive research is that men and women perceive engineering in similar and different ways. While both men and women look at engineering as problem solving, women see engineering through a more creative lens, expecting a challenge, whereas men have the desire to build and have more hands-on experience. Men are more extrinsically motivated to succeed by monetary means, and though both strive to help others through engineering, the drive is different for men and women.

There is also a marked difference in where and how these perceptions begin. A significant factor in how students begin to understand engineering is their previous experience with engineers and engineering-related activities. Pierrakos said that students who persisted had more exposure to engineering. If they knew someone who was an engineer or had previous hands-on engineering experience, they were more likely to stay in the major.

McGrath said, “A lot of people just don’t know what it means to be an engineer when they enter the field because they don’t know a personal relative who has done it. We find that understanding what it means to be an engineer and the culture of engineering is vital to getting people to understand that it isn’t all physics and math, even though it’s a huge part of engineering, there’s more to it than just that.”

The student’s perceived self-efficacy is a significant factor in retention. The less a student believes they can succeed in the program, the more likely they are to feel conflict, and ultimately switch majors.

So how is JMU’s department of engineering moving freshmen toward identifying as an engineer?

Pierrakos said that the department constantly strives to “facilitate community building through faculty-student and student-student relationships.” She added that “the sooner students can build a community; the better it will be in the long run.” On the course level, the professors are working to create an environment that encourages students to focus more on mastering the material than being afraid to fail.  

On the program level, the department is working to ensure that the right advising is in place, so students can develop a sense of what engineering is and its impacts. Pierrakos said when advising, it is important to present engineering as something that can integrate multiple disciplines and identities.

Dr. Kyle Gipson, an assistant professor within the department of engineering, says that although diversity within the students is lacking, the program possesses a significant diversity of thought.

“You find a wide array of backgrounds and expertise. This gives a totally different diversity,” he said. “The department encompasses what I believe students should be introduced to – the idea of being shown possibilities. You won’t always be around people who think like you.”

McGrath added that, “A lot of what our department of engineering at JMU does is trying to be innovative and switch the styles of their classes and incorporate a lot of the feedback into the community and make it a better community.”

In addition to departmental efforts, female students within the major are making their mark with organizations like the Society of Women Engineers (SWE.)
SWE began in the department of engineering’s inaugural year. Seniors Paulina Hoang and Emily Cummings joined the group in its second year when they were freshmen, and have been expanding the program ever since.

According to Hoang and Cummings, SWE’s mission is to “educate and promote to young women the benefits of a STEM-related career.”

Throughout the year they do workshops with young women to show leadership and empowerment skills through the field of engineering. Both Cummings and Hoang serve on the Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) STEM Advisory Board, and are in the process of setting up a mentorship between SWE members and students from the STEM Academy.

“[HCPS] thought it would be a great way for the students to look up to someone as a role model,” said Hoang.

Cummings and Hoang said that in order to have a higher recruitment and retention rate for women, the department should start promoting engineering to young girls at an early age. 

“Women think engineering is intimidating even though they have the capabilities,” said Hoang.

Hoang added that the creativity women bring to engineering is so important because of the need for innovation. 

When it comes to recruitment, Dr. Gipson said that the engineering program is still young, its inaugural class having graduated only last spring, and “is still developing its identity.”

“The department is happy with the students, it’s just a matter of how do we move forward with trying to match the diversity of the staff?”

Dr. Pierrakos is working towards finding the answer to that question with the conclusion of her research.

She said the research is important “because less than 20% of the students in the department of engineering are female students. On the graduate level that number decreases.

“Engineers solve a lot of complex problems and it takes different ways of coming up with the solution. Diversity means better problem solving.”