We need to talk about the female retention issue in the electrical and computer engineering department

Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering building. - File Photo / Justin Decker

This year, approximately 70 electrical and computer engineering students will be graduating, and only two of them are girls.

The fact is that at Rowan, a substantially lower number of girls enroll in and stick with the electrical and computer engineering (ECE) curriculum in comparison to other engineering majors.

Over the years, the ECE department has had an issue with retaining female students. Dr. Robi Polikar, who has been the ECE department chair for nine years and started as an associate professor at Rowan in 2001, argues that retention rates are low due to there being fewer incoming female students.

ECE senior Helen Pan disagrees:

“He’s wrong. You have a higher chance of one of them leaving, but you shouldn’t use that as an excuse. There’s a lower number, so you should try your best to retain the girls you do have. There’s a reason why every year girls just leave.”

She’s not alone.

This retention issue is not unique to Rowan. In 2018, the American Society of Engineering Education found that the percentage of ECE bachelor’s degrees awarded to women was 17.3%. Compare this to other engineering majors like biomedical engineering, which awards 45.4% of bachelor’s degrees to women.

Rowan’s ECE department is starting to see increases in its female enrollment. Polikar said in an email that “in Fall 2018, we had a total of 18 women, constituting 5.4% of … the ECE student body. In Fall 2019 that number increased to 29, constituting 8.3% of the total ECE student body.”

Though this surely is improvement, it is nowhere near the ratio of women in other engineering majors at Rowan and elsewhere.

When faced with these jarring statistics, we must ask ourselves why women are underrepresented in the ECE field and how Rowan can be part of the solution.

For starters, female ECE students noted an issue in the curriculum itself. The first core class that freshman ECE students take is a course called Introduction to Digital Systems, which encompasses learning about different technologies and how to apply them in the real world.

Originally a sophomore-level course, Digital Systems was moved to the first semester of the curriculum. The new placement of this course allows ECEs a chance to engage in hands-on projects early on and gives them a better understanding of their major.

However, not every freshman student has developed the foundational skills necessary for the class, which puts students without a strong background in technical knowledge, whether that be through high school, family or otherwise, at a disadvantage.

Caroline Dudeck, a junior mechanical engineering student who dropped ECE in her freshman year, is one of those students who don’t have familial ties to any STEM fields.

“The class caters towards people who have experience, but the department needs to work towards getting people who don’t have experience up to some basis of where to start and where to go from there,” Dudeck said. “I feel that it’s very intimidating to be in class with people who know what they’re doing already.”

Sophomore ECE major Kaitlyn Langschultz echoed this sentiment:

“A lot of people come in with no programming experience at all, like me, I was one of those people. If we started with Intro to C++ [a coding class] first semester, and then got put into Digital Systems second semester, it would have made the labs a lot easier.”

There is also an unspoken perception among peers early on that everyone understands and grasps the course material. For female students who feel isolated in a class full of guys, they often don’t realize that many students are confused about the material, and they often struggled to advocate for themselves in scenarios like this.

“It’s just so intimidating when you think everyone knows everything. But they don’t at all and everyone is faking it,” Julia Konstantinos, a junior ECE major, said. “When everyone agrees that they’re faking it, they can learn more together.”

Evelyn Lliguicota, a freshman ECE major, felt the same as Konstantinos.

“Some kids in my digital systems class already had prior knowledge. I felt that if I asked the teacher something, my question would just prolong the lecture and that the rest of the class would not want that,” she said.

Another issue lies in the support system provided by professors in the ECE department. While students agree that the professors are highly qualified individuals with a variety of specializations that can benefit a range of student interests, the faculty still has a lot to learn about how they can be more inclusive toward women.

Konstantinos highlighted a situation in which she was told by three different professors in the department that she should switch to another major:

“One told me I should consider switching to business and that was not supportive at all. I still think he’s a great professor, but it wasn’t the right thing to be said. If people start crying, what you should say is don’t give up.”

Feeling unsupported is not exclusive to females in the major. In a survey of both male and female ECE students, the majority of students felt supported by only some of the ECE faculty. Though the amount of support varied by respondent, the overall consensus was that the ECE faculty could not be counted as supportive in its entirety.

Forms response chart. Question title: Do you feel supported as a student by the ECE Department faculty?. Number of responses: 15 responses.
Results from a survey of ECE students show that students don’t find consistent support from the faculty in the department. – Contributor / Giselle Onofre

Female students who have dropped the major also expressed their disappointment at the lack of female representation they saw in their classrooms. Although there were other girls in their respective year, they would usually be the only girl in a class full of male students.

“I was one of two when I switched majors, so it was definitely very hard to feel like I was supposed to be in the room with everyone else,” Samantha Mongiello, a senior computer science major who dropped ECE her sophomore year, said.

Some students who consider the major lose interest in pursuing it because they aren’t shown the potential the ECE major has to make a positive impact on the world. At the root of the problem is a miscommunication of the possibilities within the field.

A majority of the electives offered to upperclassmen ECE students focus on combat engineering. While this is beneficial for those interested in a defense career, this is not a career path that all students in the major wish to pursue.

Karlie Naphy, an ECE senior, relates to this sentiment, explaining that the department doesn’t provide enough opportunities to show how the electrical and computer engineering field can be used in a positive way.

“The college could do a better job of promoting the ECE major to people who want to make lives better,” Naphy said. “Some of us aren’t interested in making bombs for Lockheed.”

Recently, since research for this article began, a department meeting was held to address some of the curriculum issues experienced by students. Specifically, this meeting focused on reworking the curriculum, said Dr. John Schmalzel, an ECE professor.

To solve many of these issues, Polikar, the department head, consistently consults with Naphy to make progress. To avoid making any student feel isolated or possibly uncomfortable in a room full of only male students, Polikar instituted a new program for freshmen students that will place a few girls together in their core classes so that no girl is ever alone.

Additionally, in response to this investigation, Polikar has started to reach out to female ECE students to ensure that they are excelling in their course work.

Polikar also encourages engineering outreach through clubs like Women in Engineering and Society of Women Engineers, and uses an annual hackathon event, ProfHacks, to recruit female students early on.

Another useful resource for female ECE students is the A-Team, led by ECE technologist Mario Leone. The A-Team, short for Apprentice Engineering Team, is an interdisciplinary group of students looking to strengthen their skills beyond the classroom.

The hard and soft skills that students acquire on the team are invaluable and rarely taught in their typical core classes. This helps bolsters not just the skills of specifically female ECE students but also their self-confidence, according to Leone. Hands-on skills that are often glossed over in the core ECE curriculum, such as soldering, instrumentation and circuit board design, are also taught by Leone at workshops.

The A-Team also has a disproportionately high number of women and leans toward placing female students in leadership roles. Leone does everything he can to mentor these students and make them feel like important and supported members of the ECE department.

Konstantinos and Pan, who both considered dropping ECE, credit their decision to stay in the major in part to Leone’s support. Leone encouraged them not to give up on their aspirations and they ultimately decided to stick with the program.

“Faculty are not as supportive of women as they could be,” Leone said of the female retention issue in the department. “We need to reprogram the guys in the department to stop with the attitude. If you know how to do something, then teach somebody else.”

Addressing the problems encountered by ECE students, and female students in the major in particular, is the first step toward retaining women in the major. Though young girls aren’t always exposed to STEM topics, the department is in a position to place an emphasis on outreach and introduce them to engineering.

To retain female students already enrolled in the program, the department can expand their elective offerings to be more in-line with after-college opportunities, continue to rework the curriculum to remove the bias against those without technical backgrounds and, most importantly, support every student in the major, especially those who feel like the minority.

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  1. This was a well written and honest account of what it is like to be a woman in such a male dominated field. The women interviewed offered clear suggestions that I hope are being taken seriously. Thank you to all those interviewed, and especially to Giselle, for sharing your experiences with us.

    I don’t understand the comments who are talking about getting more women interested in the field. We have women who are interested, but they are leaving. We need to understand why they are leaving (and getting their testimony is a great place to start) and then begin to make changes. When we are able to recruit more women, we will be able to keep them too.

  2. I’d also like to see retention rates. My graduating class started with some 200 students and only 50 or so graduated. So are the number of females dropping out proportional to that? If there are only 8 female students to begin with, and then 6 drop out by senior year (matching the proportion above) then only 2 graduating is statistically insignificant.

    That being said, I agree that more women need to be encouraged to join STEM majors. Another point I think is lacking here is the extremely competitive nature of the ECE curriculum, and how in my personal experience, fellow peers purposely don’t help each other because when the test comes the people that do the worst sink the curve in favor of the people who do the best. I think that the resultant mentality of “well if I help you, you might get a better grade than me” compounds when the person needing help is a woman because there is an inherent sexism in a lot of men that don’t want to see women do better than themselves even more than they don’t want fellow men to do better than themselves.

    Last note: the Lockheed Martin co-op partnership is basically brand new. the Rowan ECE dept. is growing rapidly just as the rest of RU, but this has been their first real partnership and I would expect new and more diverse ones to come with time. Also as LM doesn’t make bombs, that made me chuckle.

  3. I would have liked to see a comparison between the male and female retention rates in ECE. ECE is one of the hardest majors offered, and the difficulty associated with this major is definitely not suited towards everyone. The whole idea of intro to digital systems is that the course requires no prior knowledge to succeed. Further more, verilog, the coding language used in the class is extremely different from C++, therefor taking intro to programing before intro to digital systems would not help anyone.

    In my intro to digital systems class two males decided to switch majors because the class did not fit their interests. This is the idea, the class gives you a look at what the next seven semesters hold and give you a chance to hop into a different major while still graduating in 4 years.

    I agree that we need more women in ECE, but I disagree that retention is the problem. The real problem is the lack of interest in ECE which clubs like Women in Engineering (WIE) are working to fix.

    • Hi Sean. As a woman in STEM (as well as EIC of the Whit), I personally disagree that women have a “lack of interest” in science and engineering. What we do have is a lack of nurturing for that interest at a young age. These are issues that Rowan’s ECE can’t actually fix in their entirety, but they should consider them to meet the practical importance of having women engineers trained for modern usability needs. Moreover, it is not uncommon for freshmen to switch majors during the early weeks of classes, when many realize what they actually signed up for, so I am not sure why an anecdote about men switching out of a freshman-year course proves anything about this being a gender-neutral issue. I also disagree that ECE is more inherently difficult than any other major, though I do know many hardworking ECE majors whose dedication demonstrates how seriously they take their education. Again, these are just my lived experiences as a science major who also happens to be a woman, and you don’t *need* to take them seriously – as you clearly did not take those expressed within this article seriously, since you felt the need to comment a rebuttal. But in order to be better scientists, we need to question our biases and ask what work needs to done to achieve equity. Cheers. – Tara

  4. There aren’t many women in the skilled trades, which are very lucrative professions… and many unions are more inclusive now than ever before.

    There also aren’t very many men in nursing programs, either.

    Perhaps women and men have different interests?

    Is that such a bad thing?

    • Hi Matt. I wrote a similar response to another comment on this article, but I figured that it was worth repeating. As a woman in STEM (as well as EIC of the Whit), I personally disagree that women have a “lack of interest” in science and engineering. What we do have is a lack of nurturing for that interest at a young age. These are issues that Rowan’s ECE program can’t actually fix in their entirety, but they should consider them to meet the practical importance of having women engineers trained for modern usability needs. The question isn’t whether or not women are interested in science, but how to make sure that the current educational models for undergraduate-level science programs are able to ensure that women can fill necessary roles on diverse scientific teams. Moreover, this article is about science-interested young women being deterred by a lack of institutional support for their needs, which are often unique from the needs of their male classmates – with a lack of female faculty, there are likely few individuals who even know that there is a difference due to implicit personal biases. Again, these are just my lived experiences as a science major who also happens to be a woman, and you don’t *need* to take them seriously – as you clearly did not take those expressed within this article seriously, since you felt the need to comment a rebuttal. But in order to be better scientists, we need to question our biases and ask what work needs to done to achieve equity. Cheers. – Tara