Young women and engineering: bridging the gap

International Women’s Day Series – Through education and science outreach initiatives, EPFL is stepping up its efforts to dispel cultural misconceptions about the engineering profession.
EPFL is stepping up its efforts to dispel cultural misconceptions about the engineering profession. © Alain Herzog/EPFL 2019

Even though EPFL has plenty of students, not enough of them are women. There are many reasons why: because young girls lack self-confidence or don’t dare take up the challenge; because they don’t think engineering is for them, don’t see a future for themselves in it, or simply don’t have adequate information. What can be done to lift these cultural misconceptions that, all too often, keep women from studying engineering? EPFL has rolled out a comprehensive range of strategies to tackle this key challenge.

The first strategy involves awakening, from an early age, children’s interest in science and engineering. “Our programs when we visit primary and secondary schools are aimed at both boys and girls aged 7 to 16. But we make sure that gender issues are addressed,” says Farnaz Moser, head of EPFL’s Science Outreach Department (SPS). She explains how: “We provide content that appeals to both sexes, our teaching methods and language are inclusive, and the people who work with these children are aware of what is at stake.”

Building self-confidence and overcoming discouragement

At the same time, SPS has created a range of extracurricular activities to introduce children of various ages to science and engineering. Half the spots in co-ed groups are reserved for girls, which means there are waiting lists for boys. Other groups are girl-only. These activities include semester-long courses such as “Internet and Coding for Girls” and “Robots are for Girls,” summer sessions such as “Science is Fun,” and workshops like “Math Matters!” and “Girls’ Coding Club.” “In addition to sparking girls’ interest in and building up their knowledge of engineering, the idea is to give them self-confidence and show that they are not alone,” Moser says. These programs have waiting lists, too.

«The idea is to give girls self-confidence and show that they are not alone.»      Farnaz Moser

Lena, a third-year Bachelor’s student in life-sciences engineering, can attest to the importance of girl-only groups. She gives cryptography workshops in an “escape game” format for secondary-school students in French-speaking Switzerland. These workshops serve as an introduction to the Alkindi nationwide cryptography competition and are run by SPS and EPFL’s School of Computer and Communication Sciences, in association with various non-profit organizations. “In the vast majority of cases, all-girl groups come out on top. But when a group consists only of boys, it’s often a recipe for disaster: competition trumps collaboration,” says Lena.

Lena is also a student assistant and gives workshops at the Girls’ Coding Club. She notes that “when boys are in the majority, girls can get discouraged. That’s where separating them makes sense, because it allows girls to reclaim their space and not feel judged or competitive. When it’s co-ed, boys will tend to want to put themselves forward, vaunt their achievements, and make light of their errors. Girls, on the other hand, will feel like they have to prove themselves and become easily discouraged at the slightest misstep.”

«Today, science has little or no place in certain cultural milieus. Our goal is to help foster a culture in which these fields play a role.»      Sabrina Rami-Shojaei

Breaking down barriers and promoting cross-disciplinary approaches

EPFL’s second strategy focuses on young people’s career path and training. A more subtle approach is needed here, as it involves getting teenagers interested in science- and engineering-oriented programs. “Today, science has little or no place in certain cultural milieus. Our goal is to help foster a culture in which these fields play a role,” says Sabrina Rami-Shojaei, head of EPFL’s Education Outreach Department (SPE). The idea is to get beyond silo-thinking and promote cross-disciplinary approaches. “To reach a female audience, you have to break down barriers and make engineering relevant,” says Rami-Shojaei.

This means, for example, highlighting engineering’s contribution to issues such as climate change, energy, health, sports and entrepreneurship – all of which can be studied at EPFL. “As it turns out, girls are often over-represented in these areas,” says Laura Tibourcio, marketing manager at SPE. Practically speaking, the Department works closely with teachers, often in association with EPFL’s LEARN Center, providing them with teaching materials that are compatible with cantonal curricula. For example, SPE developed a teaching kit during the 2020 Youth Olympic Games that explores the engineering concepts behind helmets and skis. The summer sessions are another cross-disciplinary example, such as the session held last fall entitled “Nature, in Code,” which showed how coding can be applied to genetic mutations, and a session on the general theory of relativity that included a philosophical dimension.

Removing barriers by breaking down social codes – that was the goal behind “Brilliant Inside,” a nationwide trilingual campaign that SPE launched last year. The idea was to awaken the imagination of teenage girls and boys who, unbeknownst to them, often have a hidden aptitude for engineering that just needs to be nurtured.

Nationwide expertise

“When we first introduced the Les sciences, ça m’intéresse! (“I’m interested in science!”) program in 2003, we had only 24 girls,” says Moser. Today, the program reaches over 12,000 girls and boys (in equal numbers) each year, and over 1,000 girls under the age of 16 take part in activities designed just for them. The success of such efforts is reflected in an increase in the number of women in EPFL classrooms. Progress is slow, however, because multiple factors are at work. Through its various initiatives, EPFL has developed nationwide expertise in this gender issue, which is attested to by its partnerships with cantonal public-education departments and other schools and institutions.