This is an archived article.

April 2, 1997

Self-confidence is a key factor for females pursuing non-traditional fields

Many women enrolled in science and engineering classes at the University of Washington suffer a steep drop in self-confidence following their freshman year and never fully recover, according to a six-year study that will be discussed at the seventh annual Women in Science and Engineering Conference. Sponsored by the UW Women in Engineering Initiative, the conference runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., April 12, in the Husky Union Building at the UW.

Female students enter the university with high levels of self-confidence but many quickly become discouraged by self-perceptions of poor performance fueled by feelings of isolation and societal pressures, says Suzanne Brainard, principal investigator in the study and director of Women in Engineering.

“Our study shows that there is no significant difference in the GPAs of female students who switch out of science and engineering majors because of perceived low grades and females who persist in those fields,” Brainard explains. “The key difference is in self-confidence and self- esteem. Because the science and engineering fields are still dominated by males, men have a built-in community of support, role models and career networks. Women generally do not have such advantages.”

Giving females an opportunity to build these networks is one of the aims of this year’s conference. Organized around the theme “navigating the future,” the conference provides practical advice as well as networking opportunities for an expected 300 female high school and college students, professionals and university faculty members pursuing careers in science and engineering.

The conference also will feature speeches by three women who are breaking new ground in traditionally male-dominated fields. Denice D. Denton, dean of the UW College of Engineering, will share her experiences as a female engineer and as the first woman dean of engineering at a major U.S. research institution in the conference’s opening address, scheduled for 9 a.m. Denton was appointed to her position on Sept. 1, 1996.

Suzanne Lebsock, UW professor of history and a MacArthur Fellowship winner for her research and writing on the history of women, will present a keynote address at 11:30 a.m. Lebsock’s husband is UW President Richard L. McCormick.

In the closing address, scheduled to begin at 4:20 p.m., Angela Ginorio, assistant professor of women’s studies at the UW and director of the Northwest Center for Research on Women, will discuss her unique “greenhouse” model for providing individualized nurturing and training for female science and engineering students.

Conference sessions will cover topics ranging from assertiveness, leadership and communication skills to women’s health, use of technology and career preparation. One session will focus on Brainard’s six-year study tracking entering female UW students who expressed an interest in science and engineering and factors that influence whether they stay in those fields.

The study, funded by the Sloan Foundation, has identified several barriers for women in these non-traditional programs, including feelings of isolation, low self-esteem and financial pressures. These factors contribute to the under-representation of females in science and engineering programs nationwide.

Since the Women in Engineering Initiative was founded in 1988, the percentage of female engineering graduates at the UW has risen from 15 percent to about 22 percent and the number of women receiving graduate engineering degrees has more than doubled. The program has become a national model for recruiting and retaining women science and engineering students through a broad array of mentoring and support services.

May St. George, who is coordinating the conference, had over 20 years of civil engineering experience in the private sector before enrolling at the UW in 1993 to complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees in technical communication.

“I spent those 20 years avoiding women’s engineering organizations because I was told to just try to fit into the existing male hierarchies and organizations, but my eyes have been opened,” St. George says. “Women should know they don’t need to go it alone. We can help each other by sharing information and building a community and network of support that has always been in place for men in science and engineering fields.”

To pre-register for the conference, call the engineering professional programs office at (206) 543-5339. The cost, including meals and a reception, is $25 for students and $75 for faculty and professionals.

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For more information, contact Brainard or St. George at (206) 543-4810.