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Women In Biomedical Engineering: Current Status And A Review Of Potential Strategies For Improving Diversity

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Women in Biomedical Engineering

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Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1380.1 - 15.1380.5



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Paper Authors

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Naomi Chesler University of Wisconsin, Madison

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Rebecca Richards-Kortum Rice University

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Sangeeta Bhatia MIT

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Gilda Barabino Georgia Institute of Technology

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Women in Biomedical Engineering: Current Status and a Review of Potential Strategies for Improving Diversity


The percentage of women in biomedical engineering is higher than in many other technical fields, but it is far from being in proportion to the US population. From the bachelors to the masters to the doctoral levels, the proportion of women in biomedical engineering decreases significantly, which is evidence of a leaky pipeline. In addition, the percentage of women faculty members at the assistant, associate and full professor levels remain disappointingly low even after years of improved recruitment of women into biomedical engineering at the undergraduate level. Even more alarming, as we show with a new summary analysis of publicly available data, the percentage of women undergraduates in biomedical engineering has been decreasing nationwide for the most recent three year span for which national data are available. In this paper, we review the barriers to women’s success in biomedical engineering and suggest strategies for overcoming these obstacles, i.e., for fixing the leaky pipeline.


The lack of gender diversity in all engineering disciplines is an important national problem. As noted at the Summit on Women in Engineering 1, “we simply need people with the best minds and skills, and many of those are women.” Furthermore, the literature suggests that a more inclusive workforce is more innovative and more productive 2-4. In academia, the educational benefits of diversity are significant 5. Students with the most classroom experience with diversity are more engaged in learning and self-report more gains in critical thinking, problem solving and self-confidence 5. Similar benefits have been found in graduate medical and law school environments 6. Also, multiple lines of evidence suggest that experience with diversity reduces unconscious bias against women 7-10.

In biomedical engineering, anecdotal evidence suggests that the field is inherently appealing to women, especially in comparison to the more traditional disciplines such as mechanical and electrical engineering. We are also a younger discipline, which implies fewer institutionalized impediments to diversity and diversity initiatives. We are more connected to the biological and medical sciences, which have greater gender equity than engineering sciences. The unique challenges to gender equity in biomedical engineering are the flip side of these advantages. First, the inherent appeal of biomedical engineering to women can foster complacency about diversification and lack of attention to the real problems of attrition and, sometimes, discrimination. Second, as a younger discipline, we have fewer senior women role models. Third, the interdisciplinary nature of our discipline contributes to the leaky pipeline since at all levels – BS, MS and PhD – highly trained women may be recruited into medicine and the biological sciences where they perceive the intellectual challenges to be similar but the barriers to their success, such as isolation, less daunting.

Chesler, N., & Richards-Kortum, R., & Bhatia, S., & Barabino, G. (2010, June), Women In Biomedical Engineering: Current Status And A Review Of Potential Strategies For Improving Diversity Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16125

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