Asee peer logo

Does Adding “Helping Disciplines” to Engineering Schools Contribute to Gender Parity?

Download Paper |


2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division Technical Session 6

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Tagged Topic


Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Agnes Germaine d'Entremont P.Eng. University of British Columbia, Vancouver Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Dr. Agnes d’Entremont, P.Eng., is a Senior Instructor and the Mech 2 Coordinator in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UBC. Her teaching-related interests include student mental wellbeing, open educational materials, and educating non-engineers about engineering, as well as diversity and climate issues in engineering education. Her technical research in Orthopaedic Biomechanics is in the area of human joint motion and cartilage health, with a particular focus on imaging and pediatric hip disorders.

visit author page


Kerry Greer University of British Columbia

visit author page

Kerry Greer is a Senior Instructor in the Department of Sociology, at the University of British Columbia. She is part of a research group that studies the experience of women student in engineering, focusing on how students perceptions of engineering affect their recruitment and persistence in the field.

visit author page


Katherine A. Lyon University of British Columbia, Vancouver

visit author page

Katherine Lyon is an Instructor in Sociology at the University of British Columbia with an interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning, sociology of education, and gender. Katherine's recent work has been published in Teaching Sociology, the Family Science Review special issue on “Innovative Strategies for Teaching Family Theories,” and the Teaching Resources and Innovations Library for Sociology.

visit author page

Download Paper |


There is persistent gender disparity in engineering, with women making up only about 26% of engineering undergraduate students in the United States. However, there are dramatic differences by discipline in the participation of women, with some traditional engineering disciplines (mechanical, electrical) having relatively low numbers (single digits at some institutions), while other, often newer, programs like biomedical (BME) and environmental (ENV) reach near parity in some schools. BME and ENV are often seen as “helping” disciplines, which suggests why they may be more appealing to women students. Anecdotal evidence from one institution suggests adding a helping discipline may be associated with a decline the proportion of women in a related traditional discipline (that is, the new disciplines may attract women already in the engineering pipeline, rather than attracting women to engineering who would not otherwise be enrolled). Our research question is: what is the impact of adding women-associated disciplines on the percentage of women students at an engineering school as a whole and within traditional disciplines at that school?

We collected data on enrollment by discipline and gender for US engineering schools from the ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education) College Profiles from 2005-2017. We determined the addition of a program at a school by enrollment data appearing for that program. We excluded schools that did not add BME or ENV (the highest female enrollment disciplines nationally) between 2006 and 2014 (to allow for pre/post comparison). We also excluded schools with fewer than 500 students, and those without at least one of four traditional disciplines we examined (mechanical, electrical, civil, and chemical). To determine the impact of adding disciplines, we examined the percentage of women in the school as a whole and in each traditional discipline in the year before and three years after the new discipline was added.

32 schools introduced BME and 16 introduced ENV during the time period examined. Results show that the introduction of both BME (p < 0.001) and ENV (p < 0.001) are associated with statistically significant increases in the percentage of women students in the engineering school overall. Also, adding BME (p = 0.037) and ENV (p = 0.009) were associated with an increase in the absolute percentage of women in mechanical engineering at those schools, but no statistically significant change in the other traditional disciplines examined. When considered relative to background increases in women, adding BME resulted in a decrease in percent women in electrical engineering (p = 0.024).

The results support the theory that "helping disciplines" may poach women from traditional disciplines, but both may draw women into engineering schools.

d'Entremont, A. G., & Greer, K., & Lyon, K. A. (2020, June), Does Adding “Helping Disciplines” to Engineering Schools Contribute to Gender Parity? Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34474

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2020 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015