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Graduate Women “Lean In”: Building Community and Broadening Understanding

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division: Student Issues as Related to Culture

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.825.1 - 26.825.15



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Paper Authors

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Julie Rojewski Michigan State University


Katy Luchini-Colbry Michigan State University

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Katy Luchini-Colbry is the Director for Graduate Initiatives at the College of Engineering at Michigan State University, where she completed degrees in political theory and computer science. A recipient of a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, she earned Ph.D. and M.S.E. in computer science and engineering from the University of Michigan. She has published more than two dozen peer-reviewed works related to her interests in educational technology and enhancing undergraduate education through hands-on learning. As a volunteer for Tau Beta Pi, the Engineering Honor Society, Luchini-Colbry facilitates interactive seminars on interpersonal communications and problem solving skills for engineering students across the U.S.

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Graduate Women “Lean In”: Building Community and Broadening Understanding through Co-Curricular ActivitiesAbstractIn 2013, the College of Engineering at a large, research-intensive institution in the Midwest wasawarded a mini-grant to support a co-curricular program for graduate students that used thebest-selling book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (Sandberg, 2013) as aframework for promoting professional development and community building for students. Afacilitated book discussion series was developed in the spring of 2014, featuring a total of 6sessions and reaching 60 unique students in various ways. This program was designed to buildupon the themes of the book to address some of the unique and complex challenges thatwomen face—at home, work, and in their studies more broadly—around career opportunities,particularly for women working in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)fields, who may face some unique, additional challenges within traditionally male-dominatedSTEM disciplines.This program sought to promote reflection among participants about the choices and actions thatwomen can take to position themselves for success—and encouraged exploration of students’personal vision of success. There were two primary goals that spurred the initiation andplanning of this project: (1) encourage a broader understanding among graduate students of therange of choices, opportunities, and challenges that women must navigate, and of the impact ofculture, community, and context on women, whether in their personal lives, in higher education,or in the workplace; and (2) encourage and support the development of community amonggraduate students. The significant key to the success of this program was the balancebetween informal discussion to build community/provide networking, and the formalprofessional development curriculum. Each session was designed to both provide students with“takeaways” of new knowledge or skills, and ample time for conversation about topics ofinterest. Students were concerned largely by two topics: concerns about how to balance theircareer ambition and their goals for a fulfilling personal life (whatever that may be), and how tohave positive and beneficial relationship with mentors or advisors. Students also shared theirchallenges and frustration with advisors and mentors, and provided brainstorming and supportto help negotiate these relationships.After compiling the assessment data from each of the sessions, as well as the pre- and post-testquestionnaires, responses were hand-coded to identify common themes (Gibbs, 2008). Theresults include some striking perspectives of graduate women in STEM, and suggestions ofways to better support members of this group. For instance, we found that students valuestructured conversations with each other, which can help to inoculate against impostersyndrome, or the belief that despite a significant degree of externally validated success(high grades advanced degrees, awards, etc.), there is a deeply-felt internal feeling ofinadequacy [1]. Such conversations also contribute an inoculating effect against stereotypethreat, or the phenomenon whereby individuals internalize negative stereotypes about theirabilities and underperform, a phenomenon that has been widely studied in women in science [2].The pre-experience surveys a l s o indicated that participants were significantly interested in exploring the challenges of work-life balance – and specifically, how/whether high-achievingfemale students will be able to achieve the kind of professional success and family success theyseek in the future. The group was quite diverse, including many students who were currentlysingle and not parents, but there were a number of students who are already partnered andparenting. These varying viewpoints were very helpful in all conversations about the roles offamilies, partners, and children in all of our discussions, but were perhaps most useful whenpeople asked pointed questions about strategies for “making it work.” In these moments, themany varied strategies used by women in the room presented a diverse set of approaches andillustrated that for every family, solutions vary and that many possibilities exist to supportwomen in their career pursuits. Noteworthy, however, is that at least three different participantsindicated a frustration with the focus on partners, family, and balancing them. These womenindicated that they would like support and resources for advancing their careers and findingsuccess in ways that do not involve domestic matters, and articulated a frustration in the focuson such topics.The full paper will describe these and many more findings in more detail, and will highlight howthe program was structured in response to student needs; the impact on students whoparticipated; and ways in which co- curricular programs can be designed to best serve students.References[1] P. R. Clance and S. A. Imes, “The impostor syndrome in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic interventions,” Psychother. Theory Res. Pract., vol. 14, pp. 241–247, 1978.[2] C. M. Steele, “A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance,” Am. Psychol., vol. 52, no. 6, pp. 613–629, 1997. 

Rojewski, J., & Luchini-Colbry, K. (2015, June), Graduate Women “Lean In”: Building Community and Broadening Understanding Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24162

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