In the quest to boost the number of female students in science and technology fields, Baylor University faculty and students see a need to increase the support networks for women as they progress through their education.

Senior Allison Brown and her roommate, Kelleigh Maroney, are the only two female students graduating from Baylor’s computer science program in May.

Brown recalls challenges her freshman year in connecting with the already few women in the program, and has since made it a priority to reach out to and even tutor incoming female students starting computer science studies.

“If you don’t sit next to a girl your first day in your first class, it’s less likely you’re going to be friends with them. . . . You’re not really talking to them in class or know their names as well,” said Brown, 21, who founded the Women in Computer Science student chapter at Baylor last year. “I didn’t even know some of the girls in my class until my sophomore year.”

Emily Sandvall, associate director for undergraduate programs at Baylor’s Rogers School of Engineering and Computer Science, also wanted to foster greater connections among the college’s women students. Last year, she launched a series of intimate talks with female students living at the Teal Residential College, the on-campus living and learning community for engineering and computer science majors.

“I basically went floor by floor and just had these conversations with women,” Sandvall said. “We played with Legos while we were talking about women’s issues in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and their experiences in the classroom, and talking about ways as a community of women all pursuing the same thing that we could support and encourage one another, and it went really well.”

The program now has expanded to a more formal event called “Ladies and Legos.” Sandvall stuck with the Legos theme because the toy is linked with engineering yet has primarily been marketed toward boys.

The two “Ladies and Legos” events this semester drew about 100 students, along with female engineering and computer science faculty members and women representing companies such as IBM, SpaceX, Diversified Product Development and Halliburton. Halliburton awarded Baylor a $5,000 grant to fund the program.

At the most recent “Ladies and Legos” event, students split into groups to discuss issues of inequality facing women in STEM fields. Topics ranged from negative attitudes about women’s math and science abilities to being assertive in the workplace and being able to negotiate for a salary, raise or promotion.

“I think women leave and they feel empowered and they feel like they have a community of other women to provide support,” Sandvall said. “My hope for this program is that we can build relationships and have mentorships that can help them throughout their college career, but also their careers after they graduate from Baylor.”

Recruiting top talent

Leah Carter, university affairs support services lead for Halliburton, said the company aims to develop relationships with universities like Baylor in hopes of eventually recruiting top female and male talent for internships and full-time positions.

“It’s very easy to see that across the board, STEM fields are highly focused on the male; there’s a large male population,” Carter said. “We have a very strong interest and a push to get more women interested in No. 1, majoring in a STEM career, and No. 2, really thinking about all of the opportunities they could have in the industry.”

Baylor has made some strides in recruiting more women to STEM programs. Women were the first two students in the year-old doctoral program in mechanical engineering, for example.

Michael Thompson, associate dean of undergraduate programs at the Rogers School, said female students make up about 23 percent of the 1,118 undergraduates in the college, compared with just 12 percent in 1999 when he began working at Baylor.

Nationally, women earned just 19.2 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and 18.2 of computer science bachelor’s degrees issues in 2012, according to a report by the National Science Foundation.

“It just seems like an obvious problem,” Thompson said. “If we can have more women and minorities in engineering, I think it serves everybody’s interest.”

The limited number of women in engineering also has impacted faculty hires at the Rogers School. Thompson said the college recently hired a female electrical engineering faculty member for the first time in the school’s history, while women fill just six of 47 faculty positions in the college, or roughly 13 percent.

Freshman Erin Saylor noted the importance of female mentors with industry experience in motivating and inspiring future generations of female engineers. Both of Saylor’s parents are chemical engineers, and she has been able to personally connect with five women who work alongside her mother at ExxonMobil in Houston.

“I feel like it makes me more determined,” said Saylor, who is studying electrical engineering. “I feel a strong need to prove society wrong, that it’s possible (for a woman) to be an engineer. It also makes me feel stronger because I’ve met all these people that have proved they are worthy and capable of this career choice, and it’s just very comforting to see that it’s possible.”

Lesley Wright, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Baylor, said she often advises her female students to develop greater confidence and assertiveness to prepare for working in a male-dominated industry.

Sole female student

Wright said she often was the only female student in her engineering classes when she was working on her bachelor’s degree at Arkansas State University in the late ’90s. She went on to become the first female faculty member hired in the aerospace and mechanical engineering department at the University of Arizona, where she taught before coming to Baylor.

“It’s easy when they walk into a room full of males to sort of back down and shy away, even when they know that they’re right,” Wright said. “Just to gain the confidence that they know their stuff, that they’re well prepared, and that their ideas are just as good as the ideas coming from the guys in the room.”

But attitudes about women’s abilities to excel in STEM fields still pose issues. At the Ladies and Legos event, sophomore Megan Cheng discussed an encounter in which a male student laughed when Cheng said she was majoring in electrical engineering, declaring that it was a field for men.

“To come face to face with that and realize there’s lots of people who think that STEM fields are for guys or that girls are all bad at math,” said Cheng, 19, whose father is an electrical engineer. “Really just facing those stereotypes or presuppositions that people have and asking them, ‘Why do you think that?’ and challenging them to really question why they think a certain way.”

Wright said while there have been significant increases in the number of women who complete engineering degrees, cultural barriers within companies can impede retention efforts. Issues often arise as women marry and start families and seek ways to balance their career demands and home responsibilities, she said.

“One of the things that comes up, and it’s not fair by any means, is in hiring a young female out of school, what happens if she gets married? What happens if she gets pregnant?” Wright said. “That’s a conversation that obviously never happens with a guy, and it shouldn’t be happening with a female.

“Ten years out, the number of females in the workplace is much less than what it is immediately out of school.”

Brown said work culture was among her chief concerns for the first job she would take after graduation. She accepted a position as a software engineer position with Salesforce.com, a San Francisco-based cloud computing firm, that offers flexible work hours and the option to work from home among other benefits.

She thinks companies need to invest in retention programs to create more flexible work environments in order to retain the top female and male employees.

“It’s harder, and that’s where it’s going to cost more money for the companies,” Brown said. “But if you want the best programmers and the best engineers to get the best products, the most innovative products and the next big thing, then you need to make it as good as possible for those best people, because if they’re that good, they’re going to have opportunities anywhere.”

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