Where are all the women?

In an environment historically saturated with men, women have recently become the majority.

The year 2015 was the first in which a higher percentage of women than men held bachelor’s degrees, according to Time magazine. In fact, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that nationally, women are more likely to enroll in and graduate from college than men.

But that’s not true at Purdue.

Purdue’s fall 2021 enrollment sits at a 57-43% split between men and women, respectively, according to the Purdue Data Digest.

“More of the applications (Purdue gets) are men,” said Mitch Warren, the director of admissions. “The number of men who are going to college or the number that are applying to college is dropping, and it’s dropped a lot in the last couple of years.

“But Purdue is kind of an anomaly.”

The percentage of female students at Purdue is the lowest among the Big Ten conference, and has remained stagnant since 2008.

The University of Illinois has a 55-45% split in its fall 2021 enrollment. Indiana University has an equal split between the genders. The University of Wisconsin-Madison had 1,692 more women than men enrolled in fall 2021.

“Purdue is a pretty big school within the Big Ten as a whole,” Warren said. “Engineering at Purdue is fairly large, too,” which he said explains the larger gender gap at Purdue.

Warren said the College of Science has the same trend.

The College of Engineering and the College of Science, the two largest colleges at Purdue, accounted for 31% and 17% of all undergraduate admissions in Fall 2020, according to Purdue admissions’ website.

Female enrollment within Purdue engineering was 26% at an undergraduate level and 24% at a graduate level according to the Women in Engineering website.

Women in STEM

Despite the stagnant overall gender gap, the enrollment of women to the College of Engineering has increased in numbers since 2008.

“For College of Engineering undergraduates, the enrollment of women has increased by 126% from fall 2008 to fall 2021, compared to an overall College of Engineering growth of 65%,” Beth Holloway, assistant dean of engineering for diversity and engagement, said in an email.

Jordan Harris, a senior in the College of Health and Human Sciences, said her ideas and opinions in group assignments aren’t taken seriously by her peers.

“We are second-guessed a lot of the time,” she said. “Our opinions aren’t always considered as strongly as our other male counterparts (in a group work setting).”

The significant gender imbalance might be to blame here, Harris said. The situation would be much better if there were more women in her STEM classes. She also added that some of her classes have a 75-25% split between men and women.

Women’s enrollment is a topic of discussion among Purdue admissions, Warren said. Admissions’ goal moving forward is to work with programs, like the Women in Engineering and Women in Science, to help them recruit more women in STEM majors.

Admitting more women into STEM majors is a “multi-year process,” Warren said.

It starts by working with middle school and early high school girls to talk about college, he said.

“So when they get to be a senior, college can be an option for them.”

Programs like Women in Engineering, Society of Women Engineers, Women in Science and Women in Technology conduct outreach programs as well.

Women in Engineering run outreach programs for K-10 and for juniors and seniors in high school, according to its website. Some of its programs include “Explore Engineering at Purdue,” which presents women the opportunity to connect with engineering students, staff and alumni to help them consider applying to Purdue Engineering.

SWE directs its own outreach program called “Girl Scout Day,” where members invite Cadette Girl Scouts to complete hands-on engineering activities that allow them to “learn about the many different ways engineering is used every day,” according to its BoilerLink page.

However, outreach programs for girls may not always translate into a career in STEM, according to SWE’s 2020 Literature Review, which highlights the best scholarly research on the position of women in engineering and related fields.

The efforts to increase the number of female engineering students need to be complemented by a focus on young men, it said.

“(Girls) continue to see engineering as male and because boys do too,” it said. “Boys appear likely to hold stereotypical views about who is good at disciplines such as engineering, physics and computer science, and this can make them actively unwelcoming, whether consciously or unconsciously, to girls who attempt to enter.”

“If boys’ attitudes and behaviors push girls away from engineering, it will continue to be difficult to attract more of them to the field.”

Priya Desarazu, a senior in the College of Engineering and vice president of SWE, said she believes Purdue Admissions is leaving all the hard work of recruiting more women and girls into STEM fields to these outside programs, rather than putting in any effort itself.

“I really don’t think that they make an effort to try and reach out to younger children, younger girls specifically, to try and encourage them to look at engineering from a different perspective,” Desarazu said. She does not attribute SWE’s success as having anything to do with Purdue Administration.

“I think they look at us and say, ‘Well, that’s Society of Women Engineers’ job and we have a bunch of other things to do. As long as we get maybe a couple of women here and there, we should be fine.’”

Desarazu said she is certain that, like SWE, the Women in Engineering Program also has a great number of success stories. She does not believe leaders in the College of Engineering, like Dean Mung Chiang, would be able to tell these two organizations apart or even accurately speak about their separate programs.

Despite this apparent lack of initiative from Purdue Admissions and support from the college, Desarazu still believes in SWE’s continued efforts.

“I do think that what we do does have an impact,” she said. “We do do a good job of encouraging girls to go into engineering, to come to Purdue, specifically, to study engineering.

“I think they look at us and what we’ve all accomplished as a whole, and they’re like, ‘Wow, I want to be able to do that, to be able to go to college, to work really hard and have it all pay off in the end.’”