Women in Thayer: next steps after a groundbreaking female class

by Abigail Mihaly | 10/11/19 2:25am

This article is featured in the 2019 Homecoming special issue.

In 2016, the Thayer School of Engineering made headlines when it became the first American research institution to graduate a majority-female engineering class. That year, 52 percent of students earning a Bachelor of Arts with a major in engineering were women. Since 2016, the number of women has dropped, with a 37.9 percent female BA class in 2019, according to email statements from Jenna Wheeler and Julie Bonette, the Thayer undergraduate programs administrator and associate director of communications, respectively. However, these percentages remain well above the national average of 22 percent among bachelors degree students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Amanda Bak ’20 said she often doesn’t think about her gender at Thayer, in contrast to students’ experiences at many other engineering schools.

“I’ve heard from a lot of friends who are engineers [at] other places [who say that] it’s scary, it feels intimidating because their classes are fully male, and they are the one or two women engineers,” Bak said. “But at Thayer, we do a lot of group projects and I almost always have another female group member. It’s been pretty positive.”  

Bak noted that as an Asian female, the race aspect of her identity played as much of a role in her experience at the College as gender and said that in her experience the majority of female students were white. 

Engineering professor Petra Bonfert-Taylor noted that a diverse student body brings a diversity of ideas, a benefit to all Thayer students, and engineering professor Mark Laser called the female presence at Thayer a “breath of fresh air.”

The 52 percent female class in 2016 refers to Dartmouth’s Bachelors of Arts program, not its Bachelors in Engineering program, which students can choose to complete in addition to the BA program, often during a fifth year. Of the students who chose to continue their engineering education past a BA and also complete a BE in 2019, 48.1 percent were women. The graduating BE class — which includes dual-degree students from other liberal arts colleges — has averaged 41.1 percent female over the last three years, increasing every year since 2016, according to an email statement from Thayer.

Although the Thayer undergraduate student body remains populated with women, faculty makeup does not reflect this majority. As of 2018, 14 percent of Thayer faculty were female, and just one of its tenured faculty members were female out of a total of 28, according to the Dartmouth Office of Institutional Research. Currently, 10 of 60 faculty members are women, with just six of the 40 tenure or tenure-track professors being female. Two more tenure-track women will join the faculty in the coming months.

These percentages contrast with the 38 percent of female tenured faculty in the arts and sciences and 41 percent of all arts and sciences faculty. Nationally, 15.3 percent of post-secondary engineering teachers were female in 2017, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

Thayer AB-BE student Mallory Byrd ’19 TH’20 said that she has taken only two classes taught by women during her five years at Thayer. Bak also said she has noticed that the vast majority of her Thayer professors have been older white men.

Data collected from Thayer, the Dartmouth College Office of Institutional Research, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics limited responses to male and female and did not include statistics on gender-nonconforming or non-binary students. 

A diverse faculty allows students to have role models in the Thayer faculty, according to Bonfert-Taylor. 

“It’s important for … students to see that there are women playing the roles they might want to become,” she said.

Engineering professor Jane Hill agreed, and said that female professors tend to receive a disproportionate number of requests for recommendations and mentorship.

Although Bonfert-Taylor noted that female Thayer students are at “no disadvantage whatsoever” among their peers, Byrd said than an equal number of male undergraduates does not change her experience of Thayer as a male-dominated space.

“I would be hard-pressed to remember a class at Thayer where there were more women than men, or where it felt like there were even equal amounts of women to men,” Byrd said. “The people who are often most aggressive in class are the boys.”

Despite the apparent equality in numbers, Byrd maintains that Thayer feels like “a boys club.”

Thayer dean Alexis Abramson, who was appointed in April 2019, said that increasing diversity and inclusion is among her top priorities.

With regard to student population, Abramson said that she hoped to increase female and minority representation through “rigorous scientific research,” noting that the administration’s current knowledge is anecdotal.

“I’d like to see us really be a leader in diversity and inclusion and have the research to support what we’re doing,” Abramson said.

On the faculty side, she said that Thayer is in a period of faculty expansion. As Thayer hires more faculty members, Abramson said she will be working to ensure there are as many diverse candidates as possible, but noted that the pipeline of diverse applicants is limited. 

In addition to growing numbers of women at Thayer, Hill said there needs to be a culture shift surrounding bias, especially among faculty. She said that a majority-male faculty is likely to increase biases in decision-making, unconscious or conscious.

Byrd said that although Thayer is part of a liberal arts college, there is little “translation of knowledge.” She cited gender pronouns as an example, and said that she has never had a Thayer professor who has stated their pronouns at the start of a class, in contrast to classes in other departments at the College.

Abramson noted the importance of small policies and culture shifts, such as not scheduling faculty meetings at five in the evening, in case some women who are primary caretakers need to go home at the end of the day to care for their families. She also said she hopes to bring in more implicit bias trainings, such as the upcoming workshop in December titled “50 Ways to Fight Bias,” that will tackle some of these issues.

Hill also said that she hopes to see new policies in Thayer to help encourage behavioral changes. She cited “standard practices” at MIT and other institutions such as examining lab space allocation and salary distribution to ensure equality across gender and race. 

Byrd emphasized that despite the Thayer undergraduate program having near-equal numbers of male and female students, the engineering field at large remains largely male-dominated. Women made up just 15.6 percent of the engineering workforce in 2017, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. This male-dominated field may act as a deterrent for some women considering an engineering career. 

Bonfert-Taylor said that women will likely face challenges in their careers due to their gender. She said that recent graduates can seek out companies that are friendlier toward women, but that a positive environment is “not a given.” Byrd noted that in her own and her friends’ experiences during off-campus internships, “there are a lot of companies that you just do not want to be a part of if you’re a woman,” adding that gender discrimination and sexual harassment remain the status quo in some companies.

Mary Tobin ’20 also noted this gender disparity in the field at large, not just at Thayer. 

“There’s a long way to go, there’s improvement that can be made in the industry overall, but I’m very happy to be in a place where I don’t have to think about it every day,” Tobin said.

Bonfert-Taylor said that when she was growing up, she never considered engineering as a potential field. Shea added that there is a general lack of knowledge about engineering as a field. 

“The public understanding of engineering is still very much lacking behind, and sees engineers as white males. That is true of parents, that is true of K-12 educators, that is true of the public in general,” she said.

College provost and former Thayer dean Joseph Helble and Abramson both noted that one reason many women are drawn to Thayer is its flexibility and creativity-focused curriculum. 

“The liberal arts approach made engineering much more appealing to a broader cross-section of students,” Helble said. 

Abramson said that the Thayer curriculum is uniquely experiential, emphasizing hands-on learning and application to real-world impact. Additionally, Thayer classes require teamwork, but this group work is collaborative rather than competitive, according to Bonfert-Taylor.

Laser also noted that creativity is a great asset in engineering.

“Engineering — it’s a creative field I think at its best, and women are creators by definition,” Laser said. “So come on! Let’s bring ’em in [to the field].”

Increasing female presence in engineering is important to the world’s future, Laser added. 

“I think planet earth right now needs a tender hand. We’ve tried the patriarchal mode for too long,” Laser said. “We need to cultivate a more maternalistic strategy. And I think that’s where we’re headed.”

Correction appended (Oct 11, 2019): The original version of this article misspelled Julie Bonette's last name. The article has been updated to reflect this change.