Purdue expert: Making a difference key to attracting young women to engineering, science

June 28, 2012

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Beth Holloway, director of Purdue University's Women in Engineering Program (WIEP), isn't surprised that a European Commission video designed to attract young women to the sciences has been withdrawn.

The video, part of a campaign called "Science: It's a Girl Thing!", was withdrawn after stirring up controversy because it featured young women in stiletto heels and short skirts and juxtaposed test tubes with tubes of lipstick.

"Young women need a wide variety of role models to look up to in engineering and science, not just very stereotypically feminine ones," Holloway said.

At Purdue, those involved in WIEP and the College of Engineering talk to prospective students about engineering careers both in ways that are relevant to their daily lives and in ways that reflect the global challenges that they will be asked to address, Holloway said.

"What that means is that we might talk about how engineers work on global issues like water scarcity, food production, and natural disaster prevention, relief and rebuilding. Or we might talk about how engineers work on things that affect their everyday lives, such as household items, games and smartphones, and entertainment sources like zoos and amusement parks," she said.

Last year, Purdue reported a nearly 31 percent increase in enrollment of women in first-year engineering compared to a year earlier. The 460 first-year women was the highest number ever for the college. The College of Engineering had 1,534 women undergraduates, also the highest ever.

Holloway said research done by the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project has shown that what draws young women to engineering and science is the opportunity to make a difference, career flexibility, a good working environment, satisfaction in what they do, and the ability to make a good living.

"Using these messages has helped us talk to students, especially young women in high school, in a way that makes engineering more appealing and engaging," she said.

Writer: Judith Barra Austin, 765-494-2432, jbaustin@purdue.edu  

Source: Beth Holloway, 765-494-3889, Holloway@purdue.edu