Majority of Dartmouth engineering degrees given to women – a first in the country

  • Students walk across the green at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 30, 2003. TOBY TALBOT

Monitor Staff
Published: 6/16/2016 2:05:10 AM

In a first for Dartmouth College and perhaps a first for any major research university, more than half of seniors receiving engineering BA degrees in Hanover this year were women, marking a symbolic moment in ongoing efforts to better balance the genders of students in technical fields.

The accomplishment is eye-opening, since only one-fifth of all engineering undergraduate degrees in the U.S. are awarded to women, but it may not be easy to translate to other schools because Dartmouth does not break down engineering into majors such as civil engineering or chemical engineering, as is done by almost all colleges. 

Instead, last weekend 119 Dartmouth undergraduates received the same bachelor of arts degree in engineering. Many will stay for a fifth year in which they will have a “concentration” in an engineering specialty, similar to a major, en route to a bachelor of science degree, but otherwise it will be up to graduate school or their careers to differentiate them. Harvard University and Dartmouth are virtually alone in this approach.

Even with that proviso, it is historic that last weekend’s graduation saw 64 of the engineering degrees handed to women, or 54 percent of the total. The school says it is the first time “a U.S. national research university's graduating class of engineering undergraduates is over 50 percent female.”

“This has been an issue in engineering education for decades. Diversity is something that we talk about frequently, part of the issue of national competitiveness. We all recognize this as important,” said Joseph Helble, dean of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth.

Dartmouth’s undergraduate population, 4,200 this year, has been roughly stable for years and has long been evenly divided by gender.

The percentage of engineering BA degrees awarded to women at Dartmouth has been increasing for many years, even as the overall number of engineering BA degrees at Dartmouth has been going up, said Helble. This indicates that women are not replacing men in the pool of engineering students but instead have been shifting into engineering from other majors.

It is possible that Dartmouth’s lack of distinct engineering majors may help keep women on track through four years of math- and science-heavy classes – calculus, physics, software coding and chemistry are all part of the requirement – because it avoids separation into specialties, some of which are extremely male-dominated. Women, for example,  make up only 8 percent of the nation’s electrical engineers and 7 percent of its mechanical engineers, compared to 28 percent of environmental engineers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

This lack of separation could help keep women from giving up on engineering because social science research has consistently shown that being in an obvious minority in a group can discourage further participation.

For example, Prof. Nilanjana Dasgupta of UMass-Amherst, has run experiments with small workgroups that found when female engineering students were the only woman in the group, they were far less likely to be interested in pursuing the problem –  even though none of them identified gender imbalance as being part of their decision-making.

“The prototype of success in tech is very male. Those stereotypes get in the way of women feeling this is the field for them. … You start to de-identify or move away from fields and hang out more in other fields, where your friends are,” Dasgupta said on the NPR program Morning Edition.

Dartmouth’s interdisciplinary engineering approach reduces the chance of such isolation occurring.

However, that can’t be the only reason for increasing female participation, because Dartmouth has had such a engineering bachelor of arts system for half a century, and only in this millennium have more than one-quarter of engineering students been women. 

Dartmouth’s success in helping women get engineering degrees may be part of a general effort in many technical companies and schools to attract and retain women, in part by shifting what it means to learn engineering. Like many engineering schools, Dartmouth has been emphasizing team projects, interdisciplinary work, and solving problems, approaches that on average are more interesting to female students.

“We're changing the image of engineering to a creative profession, a problem-solving profession,. … That is resonating with more women, helping them see engineering in a new way,” said Randy Atkins, director of communications for the National Academy of Engineering. 

It also helps that the number of women entering colleges is increasing, to the point that some colleges struggle to keep up their percentage of men, which makes it easier to find high-school students who want to go into engineering.

Finally, it apparently helps that Dartmouth is a liberal arts school rather than a technical school, which can have a vibe that turns off some women. And although Helble received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at MIT, which is just about the antithesis of a general engineering degree at a liberal arts college, he argues that this less-focused approach makes for a better engineering education. 

“I will argue that you’re a better electrical engineer by getting exposure to the other disciplines, and especially to the liberal arts that lets you build your communication skills, and understand the problem of the world and the community,” he said. “When students say I want to be an electrical engineer, I ask … what are you going to do in five years when the company that hired you evolves, when you have to learn new tools of analysis, for thermal load management on a circuit board, when you have to help design user interface, design the circuit this sits in.”

It’s not clear that this even mix of genders will become standard at Dartmouth, since the rising senior class has less than 50 percent of women, but the trend seems intact. And Helble says he won’t be shy about announcing it.

“Now we’ve hit 50 percent, you’d better believe I’m going to talk about it with colleagues from other institutions,” he said.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek)

The number of engineering bachelor of arts degrees awarded at Dartmouth has been rising for decades, as has the percentage of those degrees which go to female students.

5-year total  – Engineering degrees – % female 

1997-2001 – 281 – 20.3%

2002-2006 – 304 – 25.0%

2007-2011 – 324 – 28.1%

2012-2016 – 475 – 36.8%

2016 alone – 119 – 54%

Source: Thayer School of Engineering

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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