UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.—In the fall of 2017, Justin Schwartz, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean of Engineering, Penn State, announced a bold goal: for the Penn State College of Engineering to achieve gender equity among the undergraduate student population within seven years. A year later, he and the College remain fully committed to that goal. Schwartz, alongside Tonya Peeples, associate dean for equity and inclusion for the College of Engineering, and Tom La Porta, director of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), addressed a group of about 20 representatives from engineering companies on Oct. 1, at the Nittany Lion Inn, about both the importance of the gender equity initiative and the plan for making it a reality.
The company representatives were on campus for EECS Day, a recruiting event within the school. Schwartz stressed the importance of delivering this talk to EECS recruiters, stating that gender equity in the fields of EECS and mechanical engineering is critical to overall gender equity due to the number of students within those fields. He also emphasized the importance of a partnership with these companies in achieving gender equity.
“We know we can’t do it alone,” said Schwartz. “We also know that if your organizations really want to make a change in the demographics of your employees, you can’t do it without us.”
La Porta discussed the current efforts and successes of the college within the areas of K-12 outreach, as well as retention and inclusion for the female students already here.
“We have the Association of Women in Computing, which has grown to be quite big, and it really helps with retention,” said La Porta. “They do tell me it gives them a sense of community that they didn’t feel they had maybe five years ago.”
In addition to discussing current successful initiatives, the talk also identified areas targeted for improvement. Schwartz named the admissions yield gap—the difference between the number of students admitted to the college and the number of students who accept their offers—as the area of “lowest hanging fruit,” noting that the number of admitted female students who attend is lower than that for their male counterparts.
Schwartz discussed plans for closing this yield gap, including more scholarship opportunities and a rebranding of the college to highlight not only the quantity of Penn State engineers but the caliber of excellence that distinguishes their careers.
“When I start looking at what our alumni have done, it’s impact, impact, impact,” Schwartz said.
Peeples echoed this sentiment in her remarks.
“An important part [of closing the yield gap and achieving gender equity] is telling the story of the Penn State women who have been successful and telling the story of the impact these women are having in the community while they’re still students and also when they go out into companies,” said Peeples. “We want to communicate that Penn State is a destination school. This is a place you want to be because we’re doing really great things.”
Currently, the Penn State College of Engineering is 22 percent female, which is near the national average. If the college achieves its goal of being 50 percent female in six years, it will join a small group of engineering programs leading the country in gender equity.