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Do Female Engineering Students Need Training in Handling Sexism/Ageism?

on Thu, 10/20/2016 - 18:00

By Marilynn Larkin

The answer is “yes,” according to two Drexel University engineering students—and these young women are not alone:  a recent MIT study found that, in the United States, “20% of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women, but only 13% of the engineering workforce is female.” This statistic may be due, at least in part, to the study’s findings that “women often feel marginalized, especially during internships, other summer work opportunities, or team-based educational activities,” which may serve as a catalyst for leaving engineering when it’s time to embark on a career.

Savannah Lee, a 22-year-old senior in Drexel’s electrical engineering program, told me, “I'd like to discuss how to react if you feel you’re being passed up for an opportunity  just because you’re a young woman. It’s happened to me and I didn’t know what to say or do without being called ‘bossy.” 

Krishna Dhanani, also 22 and a senior in the biomedical engineering program, agrees. “When I was working on an engineering design project, the male students were very aggressive in disagreeing with my suggestions, acting like I didn’t have the brains to come up with workable ideas. We really do need to know how to react and what we can do if we’re not being treated fairly.” 

Such negative experiences are common, according to a recent survey by Nadya Fouad, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Fouad surveyed 5,300 women who earned engineering degrees within the past six decades to figure out why so few stayed in engineering. She found that women who fled the field largely referred to the work environment as “hostile” towards women.

It’s certainly possible for female engineering students to have positive, “gender neutral” experiences, particularly on campus. For example, both Lee and Dhanani were on the team that helped develop the questions for Elsevier’s Knovel/Engineering Village Engineering Academic Challenge (EAC), being held this month at universities around the world. They were quick to note that the EAC team, which included four male students and was run by engineering liaison librarian Jay Bhatt, was welcoming, that everyone was on an equal footing and that gender was not an issue in the question-development process.

Yet such experiences seem to be the exception, rather than the rule, for many female engineering students. Dhanani says she does not let negative experiences stop her from “continuously working hard” and doing her best on projects and assignments. Nonetheless, a class that prepares women students for a “real world” that is less likely to be as welcoming seems like a great idea. In the absence of such training, books such as Dr. Christine Grant’s “Success Strategies from Women in STEM” can provide both inspiration and practical advice. 

In addition, Dr. Grant will join Engineering Village on November 3rd for a free, live webinar specifically aimed at motivating and supporting women engineers and engineering students. During the webinar, for the first time, Dr. Grant will introduce her novel approach to coaching, providing tools attendees can use to help navigate their engineering careers. The webinar will also be archived and available online.

Plus, if you'd like to learn more on how Drexel University is supporting diversity and inclusion on campus click here.

Elsevier and Engineering Village are committed to promoting and supporting ways to help women in engineering. Check out the resources available at and And if you have ideas, stories, or initiatives you’d like to share, please email


Savannah Lee, senior in electrical engineering at Drexel University

Krishna Dhanani, senior in biomedical engineering at Drexel University