Female engineers fight stereotypes

Many have a difficult time picturing women as engineers. There’s a good reason for this, too. For instance, at John Brown University, there are a grand total of 15 female engineers in the undergrad program.

Neeya Toleman, a freshman electrical engineering major, is the only female engineer in her class. She said that females being few in number in the field of engineering is not uncommon.

“Females are always outnumbered in engineering,” Toleman said.

“My class is just kind of a fluke in that we had a lower amount… There’s 40 of us, and I’m the only girl, which can be kind of weird. But then the other classes are either core or sophomore level. So there’s a couple other girls in there.”

While there are numerous reasons as to why women tend to gravitate away from engineering, there was only one reason, when asked, that actually related to women themselves.

“It’s a little different because often, as women, we think more emotionally than men do,” said Alissa Hunnicutt, a junior mechanical engineering major. “We take a failure in a class more personally,” Hunnicutt said.

Most of the reasons given had to do with society, how women are encouraged away from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and society’s misconceptions of the field of engineering as a whole.

“There have been different (campaign videos) by different technology companies,” Toleman said. She continued, “One that I remember is of this girl growing up, and it’s showing all of these different occasions where (for instance) she’s trying to help her brother build something and using a power drill. Then the dad comes over and says, ‘No, let your brother do that’… It’s sort of subtly discouraged.”

Along these lines, James Cooke, who is the admissions counselor for engineering and construction management, said that another reason for such low numbers is the misconception of the field.

“(A) perception of the field is that it’s this nerdy, anti-social field that mostly appeals to men,” Cooke said.

“That’s kind of the way society views it, which really isn’t the case. There’s a whole range of jobs—a lot of them very personal. A lot of the students I work with are very personal.”

Due to the lack of females in the engineering department at JBU, Toleman contacted the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) in hopes of bringing a student section to JBU. She stated that the goal of this organization’s potential presence on campus is both to provide networking and a sense of camaraderie among the female engineers at JBU.

“They’ve given us a list of professionals in the area who are willing to mentor us as a student section and kind of guide us along in this beginning phase,” Toleman said.

“They also have regional and national conferences, which is a great place to go network and try to find internships, jobs and make connections, just to encourage each other that you’re not alone.”

In light of this organization’s potential arrival at JBU, sophomore mechanical engineering major Leanna Ngo pointed out why such an organization exists.

“I feel like people are constantly saying ‘Oh my gosh, you’re a female engineer, and that makes you super special,’” Ngo said. “But honestly, gender doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t make a difference.”

Cooke is optimistic about the future of diversity in engineering.

“As a major, it’s traditionally a field that doesn’t have a strong interest with female students,” Cooke said.

“But I think that there may be some interest in changing that, which is really great to see.”