Feature

What Gender Gap?
Women may still be outnumbered at Mines, but they are not outdone

Women at Mines are used to being in the minority. Sure, more women are enrolled today than ever before.  And, at 25 percent, the proportion of women undergrads at Mines is much higher than the national average of 18 percent for engineering schools. But still, walk around campus and it’s obvious which gender is in the majority. A closer look at the student body, however, reveals some interesting trends.

Although women make up only a quarter of the student population, they currently hold about half of student leadership positions; women currently serve as presidents of the student body, senior class, board of student organizations, and numerous honor societies and campus chapters of professional organizations. In addition, a disproportionate number of women serve as officers of these same organizations. It’s also interesting to note that women have higher graduation rates (74 percent vs. 67 percent) and slightly higher grade-point averages (3.0 vs. 2.9) than their male peers.
What is behind these trends? What is propelling women into leadership on campus, and what accounts for their success in other areas?

While there are no definitive answers to these questions, a concerted effort to improve the environment for women at Mines has been under way for a long time. For the last decade, many of these efforts have been led by Debra Lasich, the executive director of Mines’ Women in Science and Engineering program (WISEM). “It’s great to see so many women in leadership. We’ve made a lot of progress,” she says, encouraged by these trends.

Central to her work is an informal team—composed of both men and women—that works to create an environment comfortable for women at Mines. Her two closest collaborators in this group are Candace Sulzbach ’81 and Sarah Engel. A Mines alumna, Sulzbach is also a lecturer in the Division of Engineering, the faculty advisor for the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and her daughter is currently attending Mines. Sarah Engel is an admissions officer who focuses on recruiting women.

“Women tend to approach the decision to go to engineering school a little differently than most men,” Engel says. “Being well-rounded is more important. I see them making more of an effort to find out, what will I do with my day when I’m an engineer? How will it affect people’s lives? And how can I be an engineer and still do all the other things I want to do?”

Lasich adds that she sees women doing more research before choosing engineering. For example, while less than a third of applicants to Mines are women, they make up more than half the prospective students touring campus. Engel says, “We are doing a better job at defining what Mines can provide women.” She often finds that the young women arrive on campus without a clear idea of what they can do with an engineering degree. “But often, as they listen to the possibilities, their eyes just light up with recognition that they can do this with their lives, and they can really change the world and make a difference. Those are the best days!” she says.

Helping them communicate this message is Riya Muckom (left), a freshman chemical engineering major who writes a monthly blog on the admissions web site, including posts on discovering rock climbing and joining the Ultimate Frisbee Club. She’s taken on responsibility as well, serving as an officer for the Pre-Med Society and training to become a student ambassador for prospective students. “When I visited Mines, each student emphasized how easy it was to get involved,” she says, “so I did.” Muckom is also a stellar student, attending on a full Florence Caldwell scholarship (named after the first female graduate of Mines 112 years ago).

A number of programs are in place to help support female students attending Mines. In Making the Connection, women who have been accepted for admission are teamed with current female students for a day on campus. The Graduate Women’s Forum, held four times a year, provides nonacademic, professional development opportunities for graduate students. Topics have ranged from financial planning to work/ life balance. Women’s History Month is usually observed with mini-theater, portraying significant women’s accomplishments. And graduating women are celebrated at The Continuum, an event jointly developed by WISEM, SWE and the Alumni Association. “We call it the Continuum because we look at the past, present and future—current students, those who are graduating and alumni,” says Lasich.

To hear current students describe it, the efforts toward a cultural shift are working. Sara Post (left), a senior majoring in geologic engineering, says the climate at Mines encouraged her to be far more engaged than she was in high school. “Women do seem to get really involved here,” she says. “I started by writing an annoyed letter to The Oredigger about how many errors there were, and the next thing I knew I was a copy editor.” And today she is the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, as well as senior class president and a member of SWE.

“Mines is amazingly welcoming to women,” says Kennda Lynch (left), a PhD student in environmental science and engineering. “There are lots of resources dedicated to making women feel welcome in a traditionally male field.”

With engineering degrees from the Universities of Illinois and Colorado, and work experience at Lockheed Martin, Abbott Laboratories and NASA, Lynch knows something about traditionally male fields.

Lasich is not solely focused on serving the student population. “You can’t improve the institutional climate for women by working with students only,” she says. “Female faculty and staff are a big part of it.” While the ratio of female faculty members remains relatively low—the same is true nationwide in technical fields—more women than ever before are serving in leadership roles in the school’s administration. Currently, 40 percent of the president’s Executive Committee, and 70 percent of his cabinet are women.

Tony Dean, a professor in the chemical engineering department, has observed the number of women in positions of leadership grow during his 10 years at the school. “Campus efforts to increase diversity at these levels have worked because the women in these positions have been exceedingly competent,” he says. “And they’re role models. So now there are more and more in the leadership pipeline, also visibly demonstrating their competence.”

Derek Morgan, associate dean of students and director of student activities, has seen expectations for women build over the seven years he's been at Mines. “We expect women to do great things, because they already have done great things,” he says. “There’s more of a culture that celebrates women. It’s okay for women to stand out and lead.”

Both Lasich and Sulzbach received national awards this academic year for their work toward improving the culture for women at Mines: Lasich was recognized by the Women in Engineering ProActive Network with their University Change Agent award, and Sulzbach was named Outstanding Faculty Advisor of the Year by SWE at a ceremony in California.

Since becoming the faculty advisor to Mines’ SWE chapter in 2002, Sulzbach has seen membership increase by more than 50 percent. It’s now the largest student group on campus and the second largest student SWE chapter in the nation. One way she’s built up the organization is by focusing on student leadership. She says all SWE activities are organized by its student officers, with Sulzbach offering guidance only when needed. (That may be a harder balance to strike this year as Sulzbach’s daughter, Eryn Ammerman, was elected chapter president.) The weekly SWE luncheon speaker series builds community and provides students with valuable information and networking opportunities. “Just yesterday our speaker was a chemical engineer who makes prosthetic devices,” says Sulzbach. “Attendance topped 200.”

“It’s this kind of thing—the opportunities to think about the impact of their work—our women are responding to,” adds Lasich.

Comparing Sulzbach’s experience at Mines in the eighties, with Muckom’s perceptions in 2010, its clear things have come a long way in 30 years. As a student, Sulzbach recalls that only five percent of the student body was female, women’s restrooms were few and far between and professors sometimes assumed women couldn’t do the work. Muckom, on the other hand, says, “Honestly, most of the time I don’t even notice.”

Lasich isn’t complacent, but she is taking time out to celebrate the progress. “I’m not saying we are done making improvements, but the collective efforts of the entire community—administration, faculty, staff and alumni—have successfully created an environment where women are not only attending and working at Mines, but they are part of the leadership and thriving.”