Closing the STEM Gender Gap Is a Team Effort at NYU Tandon

Thanks to a Host of Initiatives, the School of Engineering is Attracting and Retaining Female Students at an Encouraging Rate

100 women summit

Students enjoy a meal at the sixth annual Women in STEM Summit in March 2017. The event celebrated the accomplishments of female faculty, industry leaders, students, and alumni in technology focusing on service to society.

When alumni from past years return to Brooklyn to visit NYU Tandon, some of the reactions are predictable. Those who attended before 1969, when the Myrtle Avenue Elevated was demolished, marvel at the changed landscape. Peering in the windows of the MakerSpace has quickened the heart of many who dream of what might have been possible had that well-equipped facility been available during their own student years.

One sentiment is expressed almost universally — even by alumni who graduated only a year or two ago: There are a lot more woman here now!

The numbers bear out that impression. A third of all Tandon students are now women: an alum visiting now could bump into one of the more than 1,700 female students currently enrolled (900 undergraduates plus 838 earning advanced degrees). And if the upward trajectory continues, those statistics will soon be even more noteworthy: the 275 incoming female freshmen who arrived in September comprise 40% of the Class of 2021.

The annual WEST Fest welcomes incoming female engineering students to learn more about opportunities at Tandon, and meet fellow women students.
The annual WEST Fest welcomes incoming female engineering students to learn more about opportunities at Tandon, and meet fellow women students.

“With the American Society for Engineering Education reporting that women make up, on average, just over 20% of undergraduates enrolled in engineering programs and only about one-quarter of those in master’s and doctoral programs, it’s evident that NYU Tandon is doing very well in helping close the gender gap that exists in the STEM fields,” said Elizabeth Ensweiler, Tandon’s Senior Director of Graduate Enrollment and Graduate Admissions. “In fact, the National Center for Women & Information Technology recently honored our school for its successes in recruiting and retaining female students in various fields. However, while outside recognition is nice, the most gratifying thing is seeing our aspiring female engineers grow and thrive here and knowing that they will soon be contributing to a vibrant, diverse STEM workforce.”

I immediately felt at home and knew that at Tandon my voice would always be heard and that I would be a valued, respected member of the university community.”
— Simone Brown, Student

Female students at Tandon are made to feel welcome even before they take their first class. For example, WEST Fest (the acronym stands for Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology), an annual networking event for incoming first-year students, allows attendees to interact with faculty members, meet peers with similar interests and talents, and speak with representatives from NYU Tandon clubs and organizations like STEMinist and Society of Women Engineers. Another event, Tandon-WEST is held twice a year (at the Fall Open House and the Weekend on the Square admitted student event), and provides both prospective and admitted students with the opportunity to find out about the accomplishments of NYU women in fields traditionally dominated by men.

“I came from Georgia to attend WEST Fest,” sophomore Simone Brown, who is studying computer science and aspires to work in project management, recalled. “I immediately felt at home and knew that at Tandon my voice would always be heard and that I would be a valued, respected member of the university community. I applied to be a ‘Project Welcome’ representative as my work-study assignment, so I can help others feel that same sense of camaraderie and belonging.”

Brown explains that her professors have been important supporters. “There is widespread acknowledgment of the contributions women have made to the world,” she said. “Even in my required expository writing class, my instructor, Jeannie Im, very carefully chose our source material to include female authors.”

women ncwit awards
The National Center for Women & Information Technology honored NYU Tandon's commitment to women students.

Ensweiler — who is active in an interdepartmental and cross-school collaborative team composed of faculty, staff, and administrators that identifies and implements strategies to increase recruitment, retention, and success of women students — says that it’s especially important for male professors to serve as allies, thus setting an example for their male students, who might otherwise dominate classroom discussions or labs (whether intentionally or unintentionally). Industry Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Haldun Hadimioglu is one example.

“The atmosphere a professor maintains inside and outside the classroom is very important,” Hadimioglu asserts. “All students, including women, will ultimately learn best in a comfortable environment. I also feel an obligation to speak up when someone is behaving or talking inappropriately. Not saying anything could be seen as tacit approval, so it’s imperative not to stay silent in those situations. I want to enable all students and ask them to excel so that the school serves its purpose: nurturing our students.”

De’Ane Kennedy, a sophomore studying computer science who is also interested in psychology and music, agrees that silence is not an option — not when confronted with bad behavior and not in any situation in which your voice might add to the discourse. “I was lucky enough to win a grant to attend the last Grace Hopper Celebration, which is named after a pioneering computer scientist and which is the world’s largest gathering of female technologists,” she said. “I networked and asked questions and got a lot more out of the experience than if I had stayed quiet. I’m used to being in male-dominated situations — I was in my high school’s drum line, for example, and drum lines are predominately guys — so I understand the importance of holding my own.” (Although Kennedy chose NYU partially for its study-abroad possibilities, she says that Tandon is such a natural fit for her that she now dislikes the thought of leaving, even for a semester.)

Hadimioglu believes that every place should be a comfortable and natural milieu for women — but especially academia. “Unfortunately, women struggle every day around the world. Even here in the U.S. they must regularly fight both overt and unconscious bias,” he said. “But universities should, by definition, be places where civilized and educated behavior can be counted upon, and at Tandon we try to exemplify that ideal.”

Learn more about Women at Tandon.