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Closing the Gender Gap

By Bonnie Gelbwasser

"I've always loved learning how things work and I've always been good at math," says Janelle Smith '03, a mathematical sciences major who hopes to focus on gender equity in the technological classroom after she graduates. The daughter of a mechanical engineer, Janelle says she feels lucky to have attended a high school where "you weren't considered a geek if you did well in class."

Since it went co-ed in 1968, WPI has been working to increase the number of bright, confident women like Janelle Smith in its classrooms and labs. Its 1999 strategic plan set an ambitious target, calling for its student body to be 30 percent female by 2010-11 (female enrollment is at now about 23 percent).

Attracting and retaining women interested in engineering, math and science is a national challenge. In 2000, women accounted for only 20 percent of the students enrolled in engineering programs. "Women are over half the population," says Alexandra Vargas '02. "It's important for us to have a voice in the design and development of things we use in our lives." Balancing the Equation: Where Are Women and Girls in Science, Engineering and Technology?, a 1998 report by the National Council for Research on Women, notes that at a time when U.S. industry can't fill openings for technically advanced jobs, women are grossly underutilized.

WPI is seeking to answer the call to action. Last year it established the Office of Diversity and Women's Programs. "Research has shown that women want to help people, the environment and animals," notes Stephanie Blaisdell, who directed the Women in Applied Science and Engineering Program at Arizona State University before coming to WPI to head this new office. "We do a historically bad job of telling them that engineering is also a helping profession and that math and science can help them solve real-world problems they can relate to."

With other administrators, faculty and students, Blaisdell has launched several "pipeline" programs and is expanding others. She is also reaching out to the community to inform and inspire younger women interested in engineering, math and science.

A cross-functional team at WPI is examining the university's marketing materials, academic program, campus culture, facilities and services to identify conditions that may deter women and minorities from applying or matriculating. One of the issues the committee is examining is whether the 30 percent goal for women is realistic.

"The bottom line," says Admissions Director Kristen Tichenor, chair of the committee, "is that we're not content with where we are. We think we can do better in attracting and retaining women and minorities who would benefit greatly from a WPI education."

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Last modified: Sep 15, 2004, 12:13 EDT
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