Representation Matters

Research reveals that an increase in women engineering faculty can increase the number of women who graduate with a degree in engineering.

By CV Garcia, SWE Research Intern

Women play a crucial role in providing innovative ideas that shape technological advancements and offer solutions to address the daily challenges faced in our society. However, despite their many contributions, women remain underrepresented in most engineering professions. Even though women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, in 2021, they only constituted 35% of environmental engineers, 17% of civil engineers, and 9% of mechanical engineers, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. (See the chart below.)

Inspiring women to pursue degrees in engineering is a critical first step toward increasing their representation in the engineering workforce. However, while there has been a steady increase in the number of undergraduate and graduate degrees earned by women over the years, a gender gap persists. (See the chart, Percentage Of Engineering And Computer Science Degrees Awarded To Women.)

Previous studies have described the critical role that faculty gender has on the educational outcomes of women pursuing postsecondary degrees. A study by Scott E. Carrell and colleagues published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics¹ found that “female students perform substantially better in their math and science courses when they are taught by women.” Their study also determined that female students with high mathematical ability in high school who took introductory STEM courses taught by female faculty had a higher probability of taking higher-level math courses and graduating with a STEM degree.

At the individual level, women faculty members can influence the persistence and graduation rate of students with the same gender identity by serving as mentors, advocates, and positive role models.2,3,4 In addition, concepts from “representative bureaucracy” — a widely used theory in public policy research — can highlight the importance of having gender representation. The theory suggests that public servants from underrepresented backgrounds can positively influence constituents with a similar demographic background by taking proactive steps to help the underrepresented. Based on this concept, faculty are able to shape policies and practices at the university level to support students with similar demographic backgrounds, creating positive changes at the group or institutional level.


Source: U.S. Census Bureau. Detailed occupation for the civilian employed population 16 years and over. Tables B24115 and B24116.

Research overview

Understanding the important role faculty can play in students’ academic success, members of the Society of Women Engineers research team engaged in a study to determine whether the percentage of female tenured or tenure-track faculty could serve as a measure to predict the percentage of women graduating with engineering degrees. The research focused on U.S. doctoral universities, specifically those classified as very high (R1) or high (R2) in research actvities by the Carnegie Classification.⁵ The research team collected 2017 and 2019 data from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology survey, an annual survey that collects data on universities offering engineering and engineering technology programs. For this study, the SWE researchers analyzed data from 154 institutions for 2017 and 176 for 2019.

Because the institutional context can influence the number of degrees awarded, the researchers compared two models to determine whether the percentage of female faculty could predict the percentage of degrees awarded to women in engineering. The first model only considered four institutional characteristics: Carnegie research classification (R1/R2), institution type (public or private), whether the university was classified as a minority-serving institution, and fall enrollment.

The second model used these four characteristics plus the percentage of female engineering faculty at the university. The goal was to understand if the combination of institutional characteristics plus the percentage of female engineering faculty could be linked to the percentage of engineering degrees awarded to women.


Source: National Center for Education Statistics (2021) Degrees in computer and information sciences, and degrees in engineering conferred by postsecondary institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: 1964-65 through 2020-2021.

Key findings and implications

The results of the study indicate that when considering factors such as research classification, institution type, and enrollment numbers, an increase in female faculty can positively affect the number of women engineering graduates. Data from 2017 show that a 1% increase in the number of women faculty could have led to almost a 0.5% increase in the number of degrees awarded to women in engineering. Similarly, data from 2019 also indicate that a 1% increase in female faculty could have resulted in a 0.25% increase in the number of women engineering graduates.

While this may sound like a small effect, it can lead to a notable difference affecting the overall representation of women in engineering. It is important to note that the research did not attempt to establish why such a relationship exists, but merely predicts that an increase in women faculty would affect the number of women graduating from engineering disciplines.

The findings highlight the potential impact that faculty representation can have on increasing the number of women graduating from engineering disciplines. Faculty members can influence the curriculum and train the next generation of women engineers. Those who move on to leadership roles gain the power to influence departmental policies and practices. However, the current low percentages of women faculty in tenure or tenure-track positions in U.S. higher education institutions are worth noting. Data from ASEE indicated that in 2019, only 19% of tenure/tenure-track faculty in engineering self-identified as women.


Higher education institutions are positioned to broaden women’s participation in engineering disciplines and make a difference in closing the gender gap between men and women in these fields. Deans, department chairs, and other administrative leaders can address the barriers impeding women from obtaining tenure-track positions and create an inclusive work environment where all members can succeed. Actionable steps can include:

  • expanding the applicant pool when filling faculty and leadership positions,
  • evaluating tenure and promotion policies to identify any possible biases negatively affecting women and other underrepresented groups, and
  • providing the necessary support and incentives to avoid the turnover of faculty members who serve as mentors and are dedicated to the success of all students.
Parisa Saboori, Ph.D., is a professor and the chair of the mechanical engineering department at Manhattan College and a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. CREDIT: Manhattan College

Providing the Right Examples

Parisa Saboori, Ph.D., often begins the academic year by telling students the story of her 2-year-old daughter, who loved to cook. “I was too scared to give her a real knife,” she said. “So I gave her a child-safe knife that couldn’t cut anything. She had to work so hard to just cut a carrot that she was ready to give up. My mistake was not providing the right environment and not trusting her. Finally, I said, ‘Let’s try a real knife. I’ll hold your hand and we’ll do it together.’ It took time, but by age 4 she was using the knife perfectly.”

As professor and chair of the mechanical engineering department at Manhattan College in Bronx, New York, Dr. Saboori fosters a similar environment of safety, inclusion, and trust so students can develop their skills and curiosity. She also engages in a great deal of outreach to elementary and middle schools, focused especially on STEM. “We need to be out in the communities and schools, letting girls know they can do this,” she said. “It’s also OK to fail. Girls can feel like everyone is waiting for them to make that one mistake. Boys make mistakes all the time!”

Finding women mentors with time for her students was difficult, so Dr. Saboori took a different tack: pairing students in the same year of study, giving them a specific task, and making one the mentor and the other a mentee. “Having a leadership role, even among peers, doing research, and then teaching what you learn builds confidence and skills,” she said. “It’s been very effective.”

When Dr. Saboori first joined Manhattan College, she was the only woman engineer on the faculty, there were very few women students, and all outreach programs were led by men. So, she started the Mechanical Engineering Women’s group, known as MEW, with three sophomore women students, gradually branching into first-year, junior, and senior classes. In its first year, MEW attracted 10 students, and by 2020 it had grown to more than 45 members.

Dr. Saboori fosters a similar environment of safety, inclusion, and trust so students can develop their skills and curiosity. 

Dr. Saboori then added a mentoring program, bringing in speakers, conducting professional development workshops, and even wrapping in alumnae. “At that point, magic happens and outreach to girls takes off.”

Dr. Saboori realized it wasn’t enough to teach girls the how, what, and why of becoming an engineer. “We need to start teaching the boys,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how perfect women students are — they walk into the classroom and if they don’t feel like saying ‘Hello’ the men say, ‘Must be that time of the month.’ We need to start teaching boys that’s not OK.”

So she took a chance and began inviting male engineering students to MEW meetings. “The first few were tense because the men were outnumbered five to one,” she said. “To defuse that, I invited a male colleague to help moderate. By the third meeting, male students were opening up, and a year in, they [now] feel that the problems women face are also their problems. And it helped the women feel respected and able to speak up. Now these young men and women can take this understanding with them and change workplace culture for the better.”

— Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor

Helene Finger, Ph.D., P.E., F.SWE, is a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the director of the Women’s Engineering Program at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. CREDIT: Cal Poly SLO

Building an Inclusive Culture

A professor’s invitation in 1997 started the career of Helene Finger, Ph.D., P.E., F.SWE, as an educator. “That’s all it took — one person saying, ‘You’d be good at this,’ and me saying yes,” she said. “In 2000, I was asked to be faculty advisor for the Cal Poly SWE [Collegiate] Section, and I said OK, I’ll give this a try.”

Decades later, Dr. Finger — the director of the Women’s Engineering Program at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo — is still enabling students to take ownership of outreach and retention activities. “Our strategy is always to first develop the person, because people come in with different levels of exposure and ability,” she said.

Dr. Finger is a big proponent of Carol Dweck’s book on personal growth, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Ballantine Books, 2007). “Basically, [the author] says we all have the potential to do better. It’s not a matter of people having innate intelligence. You shouldn’t be limited by what you can do now; you can always learn to do more, learn to evaluate your own performance instead of looking for external validation.”

For Dr. Finger, supporting students means staying alert to who you can listen to and learn from. “A colleague and I had done research on recruiting women to engineering,” she said. “That was the first I’d heard of intersectional identities, and it planted the seed for me of supporting women of color. Since then, I look out for students navigating situations where their multiple identities conflict with each other.”

“Girls need role models who look like them, especially in communities where they get mixed messages about what they’re capable of doing.”

For nearly 10 years, Dr. Finger has put particular focus on recruiting Hispanic students, who make up a significant percentage of California’s population but are not well represented in the university’s demographics. She’s excited that in the new first-year class, 29% of the women students are Latina.

“Girls need role models who look like them, especially in communities where they get mixed messages about what they’re capable of doing,” she said. “Also, we’re recruiting first-generation college students, so a lot of K-12 outreach is in communities with those demographics. We have a multicultural engineering program, and, in recent years, our Women in Engineering program has started a mentoring program for women of color. We’re also promoting Black women in STEM, in collaboration with the College of Science and Mathematics.

“One thing I love about my job is that we’re building a culture around love and empathy,” she said. “Saying the words ‘engineering’ and ‘love’ really wasn’t done when I started, and now it’s part of why we attract so many women. Our current freshman class is 33% women, and some of our departments that were in single digits are now close to 30%.”

Dr. Finger stresses that she hasn’t accomplished this alone, and that her key to success is relationships and collaboration. “I’ll tell you one thing I’m proud of,” she said. “We were doing outreach in Spanish, and for kids to visit campus, their parents had to sign a waiver that was only in English. My students pushed translating it all the way up to the chancellor’s office, and now that form is in seven languages. That’s huge — and it’s the students making things happen.”

— Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor

Sunniva Collins, Ph.D., is a fellow of the American Society for Metals and an associate dean for professional programs and a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Case Western Reserve University Case School of Engineering. CREDIT: CWRU

Reaching the Vocal Minority

After an 18-year career at Swagelok Company in Ohio, Sunniva Collins, Ph.D., returned to teach at Case Western Reserve University — where she had earned a master’s and a doctoral degree in materials science and engineering — at the request of a department chair. There she found many women students but very few women faculty.

“I look back at how many students I’ve had since 2013; it’s well over 1,000,” she said. “Some are having great careers, but some of them leave engineering. As an educator, I’m always thinking about how to keep women from giving up because they hit a roadblock.”

Dr. Collins, who is now the associate dean for professional programs and a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Case School of Engineering, looked for answers in the U.S. Department of Education’s 2010 report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (American Association of University Women, 2010). “One of the first things I realized was that being a role model was way more important than I thought it was going to be,” she said.

“Second, I learned to give people opportunities to form their own networks and work together. When I put together project teams, I made sure the women weren’t isolated, because when there’s only one, she often ends up doing administrative tasks and not the technical work. I do a lot of that — shaping teams and looking for that vocal minority.”

Dr. Collins emphasized that while a strong technical background is essential, women also need to see their ability to connect with others as a strength.

Dr. Collins emphasized that while a strong technical background is essential, women also need to see their ability to connect with others as a strength. “The college years can be difficult — growing up, people responding to you differently. At least once a semester, I have a conversation with someone who’s thinking about leaving because they feel disrespected or minimized. I always ask, ‘Do you really think it’s going to be different somewhere else?’ The answer is often no. So why let somebody else determine your future?”

Sometimes the best option is just listening. “If someone decides to leave, it’s never a good idea to try and talk them into staying,” she said. “I always leave the door open; they can always change their mind and try again. But the type of young women I’ve seen succeed in engineering? They want to solve problems, make the world better, help other people. There’s a strong altruistic quality.

“Nobody becomes an engineer on their own,” she continued. “I’m a big believer in organizations that give students experience and help them feel what they do is valuable. We have a lot of young women who’ve been very active in organizations like Baja SAE, Design for America, and the Case Rocket Team. SWE is obviously important, and there’s also our Women in Science and Engineering Roundtable. I honestly think they learn as much if not more in those environments than they do in the classroom.”

Over the years, Dr. Collins has monitored the percentages. In 2013, Case’s mechanical engineering department had about 20% women students and stands at roughly 28% to 30% today. “I’m really trying to get it to a full third, because at that point women become such a vocal minority that everyone just accepts them, and nobody feels isolated,” she said. “They don’t feel like an edge case anymore.”

— Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor

For more information about this study and research on other issues associated with gender equity in engineering, visit:

About the author
CV Garcia is a SWE research intern and Ph.D. candidate at Kent State University, where she serves as a graduate assistant in the School of Foundations, Leadership, and Administration and a graduate teaching fellow in the Graduate College.


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  2. Herrmann, S.D., Adelman, R.M., Bodford, J.E., Graudejus, O., Okun, M.A., and Kwan, V.S.Y. (2016). “The Effects of a Female Role Model on Academic Performance and Persistence of Women in STEM Courses.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 38(5): 258–268.
  3. Johnson, I.R., Pietri, E.S., Fullilove, F., and Mowrer, S. (2019). “Exploring Identity-Safety Cues and Allyship Among Black Women Students in STEM Environments.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 43(2): 131–150.
  4. Shapiro, C.A. and Sax, L.J. (2011). “Major Selection and Persistence for Women in STEM.” New Directions for Institutional Research, 152(11): 5–18.
  5. Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (2024). Accessed January 25, 2024. (online)