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Building Equality by Design

Men Vastly Outnumber Women in Engineering; In a Pair of UMD Living-Learning Programs, Talking About It Is the First Step Toward Change

By Maggie Haslam

Illustration of engineering students

Illustration by Shutterstock

Bringing together female and male engineering students in the Flexus and Virtus living-learning programs is one step, leaders say, in changing the culture of the male-dominated field.

If women had been in the driver’s seat of safety belt design, they might not be almost 50% more likely to be seriously injured in a car accident. But crash test dummies used on prototypes of seat belts and airbags are still modeled on men. 

That’s one eye-opening nugget taught in the University of Maryland’s Women in Engineering (WIE) Virtus and Flexus living-learning programs, where male and female engineering students live and study as a group while exploring the deep gender disparities that persist in the engineering discipline, affecting the careers of women in particular, and creating blind spots like those that led to the seatbelt problem. 

“Being a white male, I might never have thought of that,” said Robert Fink, a sophomore aerospace engineering student. “Sexism obviously isn’t new, but how it works out in day-to-day life has been really eye-opening.”

In a degree program where men still outnumber women 5-1 nationally, WIE has found that one important way to shift the demographics, create an inclusive classroom culture, boost graduation rates across the board, and ultimately, build a diverse profession, is to invite men into the conversation. 

“Sexism is an everyone problem,” said WIE Program Coordinator Sama Sabihi. “If we don’t engage everyone, it puts the responsibility to fix it on women alone. Including men in the dialogue helps them understand what perpetuates sexism in different spaces and is transforming the way they see themselves as part of the problem.” 

Flipping the Narrative
Flexus was launched in 2007 through a gift by the late former Associate Dean Marilyn Berman Pollans to provide a living-learning environment for women pursuing engineering degrees, but from its inception has been open to any student looking for support in the first few years of their engineering education. Young women are often introduced early to the Flexus community through middle and high school programs also sponsored by WIE. 

Becca Gibbons ’23, who attended the Exploring Engineering at the University of Maryland (E2@UMD) summer program, a weeklong sleepaway camp designed for girls to tinker and experiment with engineering projects, said Flexus gave her a sense of community from day one.

“That was the biggest and earliest impact. Because there are so few women in engineering, it makes us an elite group,” said Gibbons, now a chemical engineering major at Maryland. “I feel powerful as a female engineer because I have other powerful women supporting me.”

A 2010 National Science Foundation grant gave WIE the legroom it needed to add Virtus, officially designating Flexus for women, Virtus for men, and mentoring for all. The addition of Virtus and the expansion of coursework that Flexus and Virtus students engage in together, said WIE Director Paige Smith, serve to create allies for women and other underrepresented groups, and to change the culture of engineering. 

“There used to be this mindset that if you bring in more women, it will fix the problem,” she said. “You really need to pay attention to the inclusion piece, which is the hard work—it’s valuing the experience of everyone at the table without having them leave any piece of their identity out.”

Since its inception, over 1,000 students have gone through the Flexus and Virtus programs, which have only two requirements of recruits: They must be pursuing an engineering degree, and they must show an interest in having the sort of conversations that promote awareness and change. In return, students receive instruction and guidance on navigating their first year at Maryland, access to resources, and resume and internship help, all with a focus on identity. During their sophomore year, the curriculum shifts to diversity and inclusion and its relevance to engineering, with topics ranging from power systems to socialization, and how that ties into the workforce and engineering design. 

“I admit, I was confused at first as to why there was a male counterpart in the Women in Engineering Program,” said Alexis Burris, an aerospace engineering sophomore. “But men also have a role to play, and it can be hard being a male student and talking about women’s issues. I was surprised at what level they were able to empathize with what [women] face.”

Conversations surrounding diversity and inclusion can be personal, and sometimes uncomfortable. But the familiarity and closeness—a byproduct of living and studying together—quells the awkwardness and fosters the transparent and often vulnerable conversations needed to move the needle. 

“People in this program are there because they want to see things change,” said Fink. “There’s a lot of unintentional bias, and I think there’s a desire to get some feedback from the Flexus side, on what we, as men, can be doing differently. The Flexus and Virtus programs provide an environment to ask these questions.”

“There’s still so much to do”
Smith and her team realize that not all courses their students take will offer the same level of inclusiveness, nor will the profession. Burris acknowledged that while the Flexus/Virtus community has been a gamechanger for her at Maryland, it’s a modest step in tackling the larger gender issues facing the engineering field, where only 13% in the profession are women. 

“This experience has definitely made me more optimistic,” Burris said. “But I don’t know if it’s resonating with men outside the program or if there are similar programs at other engineering schools. I don’t know if I’ll have that same confidence in the profession once I leave the program at Maryland.”

Smith, who has been with WIE for almost 20 years, said Flexus and Virtus are a small step in addressing deep-seeded gender, racial and social disparities, particularly in engineering; but she is seeing signs that the program is making a difference. Students who attend Virtus and Flexus have a higher retention rate by the end of sophomore year, when the program ends, compared to the overall rate for engineering students. Students also continue to return long after it ends, not only as student leaders and mentors, but also as alumni, often bringing their companies back to UMD to work with Flexus and Virtus students.  

The programming surrounding Virtus and Flexus continues to evolve and grow; the curriculum is revised each year to include different issues and subjects. A course that lays bare the inequities of engineering design, which was added a few years ago, resonated deeply with Fink, who didn’t realize how deeply the disregard of gender, race and ability has affected the design of everyday products, from voice recognition software to power tools.

The socially conscious students joining the Flexus and Virtus programs today makes possible the kinds of complex conversations that spur action, Sabihi said. In the end, she said, this will lead to more inclusion and diversity in the classroom, but in the bigger picture, produce engineers who value every voice—not to mention every seatbelt wearer.  

“We talk about how the design of a product can never be truly inclusive unless all people are at the table,” said Rob Meloni ’23, a material science and engineering major. “When you add more people’s perspectives, you can provide service for everyone—and that’s the ultimate goal. Virtus/Flexus bridges the divide in experiences and really made me understand that my sole perspective is not enough.”



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