Closing the Gender Gap in Engineering

Dr. Karen Thole accepts her award at our 2017 ABET Awards Gala

As a young girl growing up in southern Illinois, Karen Thole’s typical Sunday activity involved accompanying her father for a long Sunday drive to the St. Louis airport. “We would just sit and watch the planes go by, which I found fascinating,” she recalled in this ABET video announcing her win of the 2017 Claire Felbinger Award for Diversity.

Those Sunday experiences with her father, and her early love of planes, would have a significant effect on Karen’s professional career. Ultimately, it led her to study mechanical engineering in college which developed into a long career mentoring young students and promoting STEM education.

Karen now serves as distinguished professor and department head of mechanical and nuclear engineering at Penn State University, though her area of focus has remained on turbine research — inspired from those very early days watching planes with her father.

She has been lauded as a Champion for Change by the White House and she co-founded Penn State’s Engineering Ambassador Program (EAN) for undergraduate students, most of whom are women or other underrepresented students. Since 2013, the Engineering Ambassadors have presented to over 150,000 high school and middle school students.

An engineering career path was less clear for Emily Allen, fellow winner of the 2017 ABET Claire L. Felbinger Award for Diversity, who now serves as dean for the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Technology at California State University, Los Angeles.

Dr. Emily Allen at our 2017 ABET Awards Gala

Emily first pursued studies in geology at Hampshire College in Massachusetts but after one year, she left to enroll in a community college where she learned to be a welder. It’s there that her interest in engineering was sparked. She later enrolled in Columbia University where she received a bachelor’s degree in metallurgy and material science, and has since spent more than 20 years working to increase access to STEM education for women, first generation students and underrepresented groups.

Karen and Emily’s contributions to the engineering field have been enormous. But, what if someone hadn’t believed in them early on? What if they had not had the experiences that helped them discover their love of engineering, or reinforced their desire to pursue the field?

Research shows that girls as young as second grade who are outperforming boys in math self-identify as bad in the subject, and often stop themselves from advancing in the field.

Karen inherently knew what that felt like, and what additional research indicates, that providing girls with successful role models — something she never had — might “inoculate” them, boosting their motivation and protecting them from the idea that they are not intellectually competitive. Through her Launchpad summer program at California State Los Angeles, Emily helps high school Latina women gain a higher sense of social belonging, boost academic performance and inspire their interest in engineering and computer science careers.

Creating a more diverse STEM workforce has been the issue du jour for years, and much has been done on the topic since 2009, when President Obama issued a call to strengthen America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation.

“Leadership tomorrow,” President Obama said, “depends on how we educate our students today, especially in those fields that hold the promise of producing future innovations and innovators. And that’s why education in math and science is so important.”

For all the good that has come of efforts to promote STEM, there is far more we must do. According to the latest data, only 7.9 percent of mechanical engineers are women.

Karen and Emily are shining examples of what happens when you tell a child that he or she is capable, smart and worth investing in — and it’s a message that we believe wholeheartedly at ABET.

ABET accreditation focuses on programs producing graduates prepared to enter the global workforce in the applied and natural sciences, computing, engineering and engineering technology professions. To succeed in these global professions, we know that graduates must be prepared to thrive in diverse and inclusive environments — but they’ll never have a chance to thrive if they don’t have equitable paths to the front door.

The work of Karen Thole, Emily Allen and each of the individuals who have come before them in winning the Claire Felbinger Award for Diversity are helping to do just that. And by doing so, they’re allowing for a richness of diversity and inclusion in higher education that is critical to our nation’s competitiveness, innovation and our social and economic futures.

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.