“The data first got my attention,” said Gonul Kaletunc, Professor of Food Engineering at The Ohio State University’s Department of Food, Agricultural, and Biological Engineering. “There’s very large drop rates in women in engineering workplaces. 40 percent of women quit their jobs before age 30. It’s a mind-boggling statistic.”
Kaletunc has worked over the past two years to address the issue of women’s retention in engineering careers through the Aspiration for Women’s Advancement and Retention in Engineering and Sciences (AWARES) program.
The AWARES program started in 2015 with the objective “to implement a program for women engineering students to equip them with necessary social skills for a smooth transition to work place and a successful career in the engineering professions.” In its pilot year, 13 students and 13 mentors participated in the program.
Students meet bi-weekly as a small group to discuss topics such as the job search, personal brand, conflict resolution, office culture, strategies to combat implicit bias, imposter syndrome, and microaggressions. Between these learning community meetings, students and their mentors meet one-on-one to share personal experiences and strategies about these topics.
Since its pilot year, AWARES has grown rapidly, expanding to 24 students and 24 mentors in the 2016-2017 academic year. That figure will nearly double again this academic year as the program expands its curriculum to 42 students and 42 mentors in the fall of 2017.
“Students often contact me that ‘I have a friend who wants to get involved in the AWARES program, how can they get involved?’” Kaletunc said. “Students are recruiting their peers for the program. That was my goal from the beginning.”
Students and mentors who have participated in the program over the last two years speak highly of the program’s impact. Sally Griffiths, who works locally at Battelle, has been a mentor in the Women in Engineering program since 2001 and joined AWARES as a mentor in its pilot year.
“I have found my career as an engineer to be amazing – challenging, fun, interesting, rewarding, worthwhile,” Griffiths said. “I think that anything we can do to encourage young girls and young women to pursue engineering is important. The AWARES program is designed to give students who have made it most of the way to their engineering degree the information and skills to stay in the field and thrive.”
Bailey Quier, who participated in AWARES last year, will be graduating with her degree in Construction Systems Management in December. She credits AWARES with tying up the loose ends of her education.
“I've learnt so much about the technical side of construction through classes, and through the [AWARES] program I learned how to interact with people and how to become successful using the qualities that I have and the ones that may grow on me,” Quier said. “The program boosted my confidence, which I'm positive led to me finding and obtaining my first internship. Now, I have knowledge on the industry and career advancement, and some experience! I'm not worried about finding a full-time job when I graduate.”
Over the next year, Kaletunc will be able to collect data and study the impact of the AWARES program further thanks to a grant from the Engineering Information Foundation. Students and mentors will be surveyed about their perceptions and experiences before and after the program. The study will also follow students after they graduate, to see if AWARES participants remain in their engineering careers years later.
“We want to encourage students to stay in their career that they put so much effort into. How can we create better environments for them in their career?” Kaletunc said. “Once they are retained, we assume the advancement in those positions will come. Once the advancement happens, there will be more women in the critical administrative positions that will affect a larger change of climate for those work places.”
Kaletunc is currently recruiting students and mentors for next year’s AWARES program. She hopes to see the program continue to grow year after year as long as she can find enough mentors to match with interested students.
Tayo Pedro, another AWARES program participant and senior majoring in Food Engineering, offered one final piece of advice to students and mentors interested in AWARES: “Join the program. It is a one of a kind program and an empowering network of women in industry as well as your peers where you learn from each other’s experiences and find commonalities in what you experience as a woman in STEM.”