An understanding of the participation of women in the engineering profession begins with the percentage of women who are admitted to engineering programs. Women made up 40 percent of the incoming class at Johns Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering in the Fall 2019 class. In comparison, the percentage of women in Cornell University’s engineering school’s fall 2018 incoming class reached 50 percent, the first engineering school of its size and stature to achieve this milestone.

Over the past decade, recruitment, retention and graduation of women has increased at all degree levels of engineering at Whiting. About 80 percent receive their bachelor’ degree in engineering after four years, which is equal to the graduation rate of men. The students who do not continue in engineering transfer to other majors within Johns Hopkins at a similar rate between genders. The increase in the number of women enrolled has translated to a continued rise in the proportion of women earning engineering degrees. For the academic year 2018-2019, women comprised 35-45 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients at Whiting (Table 1), while the nationwide average is 22 percent among 393 institutions (Table 2). There is a slightly lower proportion of women enrolled and graduating in master’s degree programs, but the gradual upward trend is still clearly evident.

Table 1. Percentage of Bachelor’s Degrees Awarded to Women by Selected Top Ranked Undergraduate Engineering Programs – Academic Year 2017-18

Rank* Institution Percent Women
#1 Massachusetts Institute of Technology 46.6%
#2 Stanford University 34.9%
#4 California Institute of Technology 39.6%
#6 Carnegie Mellon University 37.3%
#9 Cornell University 40.7%
#13 Northwestern University 34.6%
#15 Johns Hopkins University 34.2%
#15 Columbia University 41.0%

*U.S. News & World Report 2019 ranking of Undergraduate Engineering programs


Table 2. Ten Year Trend of Percentage of U.S. Engineering Bachelor’s Degrees Awarded to Women

2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
18.0% 17.8% 18.1% 18.4% 18.9% 19.1% 19.9% 20.9% 21.3% 21.9%

However, the proportion of women is not equal for all engineering disciplines. The choice of majors is determined by the students and not due to any restrictions imposed by the college. For example, women are the majority in Environmental Engineering and Johns Hopkins is the leader in the field of biomedical engineering, where women comprise half of the students in this top program. The genders are fairly balanced  in applied mathematics and statistics. By contrast, in the four disciplines important for drone engineering, i.e., mechanical engineering, computer science, civil engineering and material science, only one-quarter were awarded to women.  Interestingly, within each major, there is no difference in retention or graduation rate between men and women. The proportion of women at Whiting is similar to the national trend (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Percentage of Bachelor’s Degrees Awarded to Women from U.S. Undergraduate Institutions by DisciplineAcademic Year 2017-18

In 2018, the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) introduced the ASEE Diversity Recognition Program to publicly recognize those engineering and engineering technology colleges that make significant, measurable progress in increasing the diversity, inclusion, and degree attainment outcomes and diversity of faculty of their programs. The Whiting School of Engineering was among the 75 institutions to earn a Bronze Award in the inaugural year.

Continued efforts need to be made to balance the distribution of women across all majors.There are several mentoring programs to encourage and support women in engineering. Women of Whiting is a student organization composed of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, providing women in STEM fields with community building, networking, mentorship, and professional development opportunities including hosting a Women in STEM symposium each year. The University’s Life Design Lab helps students prepare for and obtain internship and employment opportunities. Approximately half of all undergraduates obtain full-time employment following graduation while another 40 percent choose to continue their education.

Although there is no data specifically for Johns Hopkins’ students, information collected from across the country shows that many women do not remain in the engineering profession after graduation. Research shows that women pursue law or medicine, which have been more welcoming to women in general. A 2015 study by Susan Sibley of MIT looked at the factors that influence this trend. The investigators interviewed and collected diary entries from 700 male and female engineering students from four schools—MIT, UMass, Olin College of Engineering, and Smith College throughout their four years of college and then followed up five years later. They found that despite concerted efforts to recruit and retain women in engineering, there is still a perceived culture of exclusivity. Women were often given administrative rather than engineering roles on design teams and during internships. Women, more often than men, wanted to become socially responsible engineers, working to solve major problems and making a difference in people’s lives. However, many women discovered in their internships that the engineering profession is not as open to being socially responsible or as dedicated to tackling pressing national and global problems as they had hoped. The Sibley found this is a result of the assignments they are given, the values that are supported, and the messages that are communicated to them.

“Educators and businesses need to pay more attention to how an occupation founded on a commitment to complex problem-solving so consistently fails to repair its well-documented gender problem,” Sibley recommends.

Academia is preparing women for engineering careers, but industry will need to continue to develop opportunities and address problems in the engineering culture to tap the rich resources found in highly educated women engineers coming out of our top tier engineering institutions.

Patreena Parsons supports the Whiting School of Engineering by capturing, analyzing, and interpreting data on Engineering faculty, students, courses, curriculum and other critical academic information for school and university leadership. She provides data and analysis for managing the School’s accreditation activities and for assessing institutional effectiveness for continuous improvement.

By Patreena Parsons, Director of Institutional Research, Whiting School of Engineering, Johns Hopkins University

“Expert Insight” is the independent views and opinions of the submitting named author of this article.

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