AKRON—When Heidi Cressman's daughter received the prestigious Gold Award in Girl Scouts, she told the presenter she wished to pursue a professional career in medicine—to which the presenter replied, "Nursing is a great field!"
For young women and minorities, aspirations toward a career in engineering can carry the same stigma as does the pursuit of a medical career: the perception that the field is too intellectually stringent, or that somehow women (specifically) cannot handle the work/life balance that such a career demands.
The hard reality, Cressman said, is that pursuing a career in male-dominated fields narrows the perceived opportunities for young women.
"The perception for a young woman in medicine is that they will gravitate toward a field in nursing, not as a doctor," said Cressman, an instructor at the University of Akron and director of the school's Women in Engineering Program. "This is societal, and it starts very young: do you want a pink blanket or a blue blanket? The perception is that women can't handle the emotional pressure of medicine, and engineering is in just that same mindset."
Women in Engineering was started in 1993 in the College of Engineering by two professors who wished to combat the gender imbalance in the industry. Cressman has directed both the WIE and the Increasing Diversity in Engineering Academics (IDEA) programs since 2007. Both are under the auspices of Diversity and Inclusion in the newly restructured College of Engineering and Polymer Science, Cressman said.
The graduation rates for women in engineering are trending in the right direction, however. When Cressman graduated as a Zip in 1988 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering (her second bachelor's degree, with another coming in 1986 in applied mathematics), only 5 percent of the engineering degrees went to females. When Cressman took over the WIE and diversity programs in 2007, that percentage had risen to almost 13 percent for graduating engineers.
And imbalances in the academic stage continue in the professional realm, as women are paid less and have fewer executive positions than their male counterparts, Cressman said.
The goal of the WIE program is to push the number of women in engineering from the current one-third in the industry to near 50 percent.
"It's not a quick fix for women or minorities," she said. "You can't just snap your fingers. But we're moving in the right direction. I think the best ideas are generated by the most diverse teams, as everyone brings their professional life experiences. It seems more companies are getting behind these philosophies, and we are seeing that companies with more diverse executive boards are more successful. Women are earning a seat at the table."
Women in Engineering is a seminar and discussion course, open to all freshman students. The course traditionally draws between 20 and 30 students per class. The IDEA course—the second course taught by Cressman with a focus on minority inclusion—is in "temporary hiatus" as it is evaluated, Cressman said, though she does expect it to return.
Cressman added she does provide four weeks in the fall semester for minority students, so that they might better adjust to engineering studies.
The issue for WIE is retaining the female students who take the course as freshmen, as only about 40 percent of women who take the WIE class actually graduate with an engineering degree (based on a six-year track). Other schools do tout a higher retention rate, Cressman said.
"We get kids who aren't sure if engineering is right for them and we try to make a connection," she said. "Having that personal connection helps retention. Older students help with mentoring younger students, and that certainly allows us to have a bigger spread of influence."
The kickstarter class, which focuses on study skills and creative thinking as much as smashing the proverbial glass ceiling, also brings in industry executives—and engineering professionals in just their first year out of college—to speak to students.
"They talk about their experiences. If you want to go to the top, you need to know it's not going to be a straight climb," Cressman said. "You have to do a bit of jungle gym maneuvering."
Students journey into the field as well, with tours of engineering, rubber and plastics facilities, and summer camps that focus on such "real world" applications.
"We're working with Marathon right now and Goodyear wants to do tours with both younger and college-level students, and we are always open to what's available locally," Cressman said.
As students learn that virtually everything in engineering has constraints—time, the availability of materials or money—they learn to accept that no design will be perfect, another tenet of engineering.
"That's what makes engineering fun," Cressman said. "There is an importance on quality and safety. How do we improve the quality of life and the community's quality of life?"
An 8-week project that spans much of the WIE semester introduces the creativity often required in engineering to circumvent these constraints. Last year, Cressman gave her class a bubble blower machine, a fishing reel and a fidget spinner. Students were charged with taking these items apart and creating something useful with them.
"The goal is to get them to think creatively," Cressman said. "They don't always know the answer, there's not always an empirical conclusion, but they look at how things go together and try to come up with a solution. It's open-ended. But by the end, they all build something and present it—and this can help them overcome their fears and challenges."
Why the gender imbalance?
Cressman said that after 13 years with the program, she thought "she might have worked herself out of a job," thinking perhaps that the gender gap and its associated stigmas would be archaic thoughts by now.
That is not yet the case, and Cressman said it is important to keep up the momentum.
"Like-minded groups produce like-minded results, which can limit profits for companies," she said. "Women sometimes shy away from intellectual pursuits and we need to encourage kids who are interested in high-level academics."
For women in engineering, imbalances are evident in salary and the number of influential role models, and there is a tendency of teachers to push women into stereotypical fields.
Cressman noted that though women and men are offered equal pay in their initial job offers, at some point the salaries bifurcate to a 7-percent difference.
"With salary we are not quite there yet," she said. "Men and women get the same offers, but as it moves forward, a 7-percent difference shows up."
In addition, women sometimes are not given as "rigorous" or impactful projects in the working world, and as a consequence young women have fewer role models from which to draw their own leadership styles.
And even though women tend to be better at mathematics than men, Cressman said teachers tend to push women into fields that offer fewer opportunities—such as biomedical as opposed to mechanical engineering; or biology rather than physics.
"All engineering helps people," she said. "At a career fair they may see three biomed opportunities and choose those, when there are many more opportunities in a mechanical engineering field. They say they don't want to work on mechanical stuff, and this is both a function of society and the industry—how they were brought up to think."
Pandemic forces budget cuts
It is no secret that UA is going through tough financial times due to the coronavirus pandemic, with one trustee describing the recent loss of 178 jobs and $65 million in cuts as "a bloodbath."
Fortunately for WIE, there have not been any personnel cuts (Cressman), but the situation "is far from ideal," she said, and reductions in daily operations are likely. The Diversity and Inclusion Department always has operated on a shoestring budget, Cressman said, a margin made more dire by the coronavirus pandemic.
"We are in desperate need of scholarship money for students whose parents lost their jobs and other financial difficulties," Cressman said. "I have been down this road before and it requires some creativity, but it will be OK. Our outreach programming and scholarships have always relied on money from grants, foundations and private donors, so our efforts to find these sources will remain steadfast and our development officers work very hard to help the program succeed in this regard."
Cressman said the department does have many "wonderful" industry partners, private donors and alumni who already have reached out to support diversity programming.
"Our current president, Gary Miller, and Interim Dean Craig Menzemer also are both extremely supportive of diversity and inclusion efforts, and so we do not expect to see any decrease in personnel," she said.
Opportunities for "real-world" learning have been affected as well, as many outreach programs like summer camps and research work with the prestigious Polymer Science Institute at UA have ceased, and companies have canceled their tours.
Even dorm space has been at a premium, with UA hosting frontline hospital workers who could not return to their homes.
Cressman said WIE will be back in the fall, practicing social distancing guidelines and mask-wearing. There also will be an online component to the class for students who get sick or require quarantine.
"This program has always been one that is built on helping students to succeed," Cressman said. "That will not change. My office will still be open, students will still be able to discuss the challenges that they face or share their successes with me, and it will be done in a way that keeps them safe and comfortable.
"Day-to-day interactions may have to go virtual at times and so will the hugs, but I will be there for my students come hell or high water."