Photo by Sho Kitamura

According to Institute Research and Planning numbers, women constituted 24 percent of the incoming class of graduate students at Tech. Much of this was driven by the gender disparity in the College of Engineering, which is home to almost half of all graduate students, and a gender ratio of about one woman for every four men.

According to Dr. Christine Valle, Director of Women in Engineering Program and Professor of Mechanical Engineering, these numbers are on par with most other engineering programs. Tech, in fact, “excels” in attracting and retaining undergraduate women.

“Nationally, if you look at engineering programs, about 18 percent of undergraduate students are female,” Valle said. “At Tech, we’re at 30 percent. So we’re the largest producer of undergraduate female engineers.”

Numbers from the American Society for Engineering Education show that in 2012, only 22 percent of engineering PhD students are female.

One of the underlying issues, according to Valle, is that because there are already so few female undergraduate engineering students, there are even fewer women who go on to graduate school for engineering.

Jessica Block, a PhD student in EE, believes that one of the reasons there are fewer women in engineering nationally is that there are fewer female role models in engineering.

“A lot of time they get inspiration from people who are older than them,” Block said. “And so if I’m a young girl, I have a lesser chance that my mom or any woman in my family is an engineer…. You’re already less likely to view engineering as an option or even think its an option for you.”

According to Block, her own role model was her brother.

“My brother actually decided to go to college for electrical engineering and my first question is what is electrical engineering?” Block said. “When he explained what electrical engineering is, [I said], ‘thats actually really cool, I would consider that.’”

Other difficulties women in graduate school may face is isolation–being one of the few women in their classes or lab.

“Even though everyone might be very welcoming, nobody says anything outwardly offensive or insensitive or anything like that, it’s hard not to take it as a message that you don’t really belong,” Valle said. “On some women, I think it does affect their psyche after a while.”

This particular issue is why groups such as the Society of Women Engineers, Women in ECE, and Valle’s department hold social events for graduate women.

“If you’re doing your thesis, you’re spending most of your time in a lab so by doing these kinds of group events you get to meet other women, who may not be working on the same research topic that you are… but at least they are confronted with the same experience day in and day out and you can provide each other support,” Valle said.

Another issue women who want to start families might face is the prospect of starting a career at the same time as most people start having children.

“I always knew that I wanted to go into research, so I went into research my freshman year, and what really held me back from deciding to go to grad school was I eventually want to have a family,” Block said. “Guys will probably say the same thing, but from a woman’s standpoint, you have to take time off to have a kid. Men kind of have that option…. How grad school fits into that is really complicated….”

Despite some of the unique challenges some women face, Block says that in the scheme of things, she has had a good time in graduate school.

“I was talking about my difficult experiences as a women in engineering, but honestly, they don’t affect me that much,” Block said. “I love being an engineer and I love grad school and I’m the only girl in one of my grad classes right now, but I forget about that. It’s not constantly in my mind at all. There’s more important things in grad school than what gender you are.”

Other things that were mentioned by Valle as possible reasons fewer women end up in engineering graduate school were that women often have broad interests and go to law school or medical school rather than continue in engineering and students often have a lot of debt after their undergraduate degrees and are drawn in by attractive engineering starting salaries for undergraduates. than them,” Block said. “And so if I’m a young girl, I have a lesser chance that my mom or any woman in my family is an engineer…. You’re already less likely to view engineering as an option or even think its an option for you.”

According to Block, her own role model was her brother.

Other difficulties women in graduate school may face is isolation–being one of the few women in their classes or lab.

“Even though everyone might be very welcoming, nobody says anything outwardly offensive or insensitive or anything like that, it’s hard not to take it as a message that you don’t really belong,” Valle said. “On some women, I think it does affect their psyche after a while.”

Another issue women in graduate school who want to start families might face is the prospect of starting a career at the same time others start having children.

“I always knew that I wanted to go into research, so I went into research my freshman year, and what really held me back from deciding to go to grad school was I eventually want to have a family,” Block said.

“Guys will probably say the same thing, but from a woman’s standpoint, you have to take time off to have a kid. Men kind of have that option…. How grad school fits into that is really complicated….”

Despite some of the unique challenges some women face, Block says that in the scheme of things, she has had a good time in graduate school.

“I was talking about my difficult experiences as a women in engineering, but honestly, they don’t affect me that much,” Block said.

“I love being an engineer and I love grad school and I’m the only girl in one of my grad classes right now, but I forget about that…There’s more important things in grad school than what gender you are.”

Other things mentioned by Valle as possible reasons fewer women end up in engineering graduate school were that women often have broad interests and go to law school or medical school rather than continue in engineering and students often have a lot of debt after their Bachelors degree.