Where the Boys Are
Where the Boys Are
Male to female ratio
Male to female ratios; 1960: 22:1, 1980: 3:1, 2008: 3:1
Michigan Tech Archives Photo, Unidentified Female Student
Michigan Tech Archives Photo, Unidentified Female Student

Evening the Odds

Michigan Tech employs a number of strategies to attract female students and support them after they arrive.

Two student organizations, the Society of Women Engineers and Women in Computing, provide camaraderie and encouragement in the fields most dominated by men. Female faculty members provide inspiration. "I took a class from [computer science chair] Linda Ott," CS major Ashley said. "She made me feel that I could do that someday."

The Admissions Office is ratcheting up female recruitment of women to shake the University off the three-to-one ratio, which has held relatively constant for almost thirty years.

  • In the spring, Michigan Tech women students wrote nearly nine hundred personal letters to female students who have been accepted for fall 2009, encouraging them to enroll.
  • Engineering faculty phoned every female applicant who was accepted into an engineering degree program; they yielded conversations with about 140, or 40 percent.
  • Women students phone qualified female applicants during "Call Nights" to talk with them about the University and their own experiences as women on campus.

"We make a conscientious effort to feature females in our publications," Admissions Director Allison Carter said. "We aim to get across the idea that there are girls here."

Indications are that their efforts may be paying off, and Carter is keeping her fingers crossed. "We want to see more women," she said. "And we'll keep doing these things until we get it right."

The way we were

Jane Laird got plenty of job interviews after she graduated from Michigan Tech, but she didn't get many job offers.

"This is for all those little kids out there who don't understand that the world was not always open to women," said Laird, now retired and living in Ann Arbor. "When I was interviewing, I had several companies tell me that I'd have to go out in the field, and because there were no restrooms for me they wouldn't hire me," she said.

In 1968, Laird was only the second woman in the University's history to earn a BS in Electrical Engineering and the first to graduate with an option in power. She had hurdles to overcome even before she applied for admission. "I was tied for the highest National Merit Scholarship in my high school," she said. "But I was not even considered for a scholarship. All of the National Merit Scholarships were given by companies, and they didn't go to women, because women go out and get married."

Even in an era when men outnumbered women in most colleges, Tech's enrollment was lopsided. "When I was in the dorms, there were fifty-two girls and four thousand boys," said Laird. "You were definitely known by all, and I consciously stopped trying to learn names, unless I met someone several times."

Unlike the men, the female students were required to live in the residence halls, unless they lived at home with their families. They were also subject to a roster of restrictions: While guys could come and go at will, most women were locked out of the halls after curfew. If you broke curfew, Laird remembers, you were in big trouble. Senior women were allowed a key . . . if they received permission from their parents.

In class, however, Laird was usually treated as an equal. "I was good friends with the guys," she said. "I pushed the generators across the floor on skids, just like they did. The only women they had problems with were the ones they felt weren't holding up their end."

Laird also has fond memories of the Tech faculty and staff, including lab instructor Tim Jones and former head of electrical engineering Walter Anderson. Only one instructor gave her a hard time, a math teacher who gloried in flunking women. "I managed to get a B; he definitely wouldn't give a woman an A," she said, adding, "He didn't last long."

Laird realized she had truly become one of the boys near the end of her senior year. "You wore jeans and boots all the time, but one time I went to class wearing a dress because I'd just had a job interview," she said. "All the guys' heads went up when they saw legs. But when they saw it was me, their heads went back down."

Alumnus George Carlson doesn't remember having class with a single woman during his four years at Michigan Tech. It's not surprising: in 1960, two years before he graduated with a degree in mining engineering, there were twenty-two male students for every female on campus.

"And most of the girls were studying nursing," said Carlson, now retired and living in Austin, Texas. "There were just a few studying engineering and science."

Most male students neither resented the few women on campus nor longed for their numbers to increase. Then as now, they focused on academics, said Carlson. "None of us were looking for a party. We didn't have much time or the energy that precedes getting a date." Those who did usually had girlfriends back home or struck up relationships with local girls.

Whether they knew it or not, they did teach women like Laird how to negotiate passage in a male-dominated world of work, and looking back, she is grateful for the lessons.

"I loved Tech," she said, "and that's why I'm always happy to give back."

"The men students tell us that their pet peeves include seeing a woman smoking as she walks, a woman with rollers in her hair, a woman consistently in a sweat-shirt-cut-offs combination, and a woman using profanity. They like your femininity, so try to maintain it."
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"Public display of affection is unbecoming to a woman and quickly results in criticism. Your behavior in public as well as in private should always be free from criticism."
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"Women residents are expected to return to the residence hall on time... Anyone accumulating 15 or more late minutes during one quarter forfeits some of her social privileges."
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From The Michigan Tech Woman, compiled by the Associated Women Students and distributed to female students from the 1930s to the early 1960s.

Where the Boys Are

by Marcia Goodrich

Shh. Don't tell.

What's the flirty little secret? For many female students at Michigan Tech, it's great being a girl.

It's not that women come to the University trolling for a husband. Far from it. By standard measures of academic achievement, ambition, and discipline, they outshine the men even at Tech, where smart guys abound.

But having a double-X chromosome yields certain perks at a school where men outnumber women three to one.

Those numbers place Tech among a dwindling minority of male-majority schools. Since the 1980s, more women than men have enrolled in US colleges, tipping the odds for romance in the guys' favor. While Michigan Tech has way more female students than it did in 1960 (when only one student in twenty-two was female and they bused women in for the Winter Carnival Sno-Ball), many girls still enjoy the privileges associated with being a sought-after and rare commodity.

"I've had several boyfriends and am now in a relationship," says Jessica, a communication and culture studies major who graduated in May. "But I don't think women are coming here for the M-R-S degree. People come here for the outdoors and for a great education. And there are plenty of good guys here."

"It's funny when you go to other campuses," she says. "My friends have their hair done, heels, full makeup . . . I can't imagine that; just getting up to go to class is hard enough. And wearing heels in the snow?"

Several other young women talked about the University's gender imbalance over lunch in the Wadsworth Hall dining area. They agreed that minority status has its compensations.

Getting dolled up is optional. Sweats, jeans, and T-shirts are the uniform of the day, every day. "It's easier to be yourself here," said Jen. "The only reason I get dressed up is for sorority things, for the other girls."

"On Fridays I look cute," promises Cassie.

The men aren't exactly bucking for the cover of , either. That's partly due to the nature of Tech, where style usually takes a backseat to substance. Anyway, say the women, the guys make up for it in manners. "We never open doors for ourselves," said Cassie.

"We all have to have some degree of nerdiness to come here," says Janet. "Neither gender tries to impress the other, so our relationships go past all that and are more about personality and nerdy quirks. I think this helps us build lasting friendships."

Horror stories were absent; none of the women in this small sample reported being discriminated against or harassed because of their gender. But sometimes they feel as if they are peeking in the window of the boys' clubhouse. Jen was once in a class where she was the only woman. "All the guys were really good friends with each other," she says. "They were very competitive, and I felt I got lost." It took a perfect score on an assignment for her to get noticed.

Michigan Tech has been laboring hard to attract more female students, in part to avoid such skewed situations. But when asked if they'd like to see more women at the University, these four cast sidelong glances at one other and replied in one voice that they like the current odds just fine.

"I wouldn't want to pack the campus with women who don't really want to be here for the education," Jen says. "But if you also want a successful husband and a good guy, come here."

Lonely girls: Overcoming the geek factor

While many female students at Michigan Tech are happy with the status quo, their outlook may be driven in part by their major. Women in departments that enroll very few females sometimes wish they had more company.

Computer science senior Ashley is accustomed to being a minority of one. "There are a lot of classes where I'm the only girl, but I don't notice it much anymore," she says. "I've gotten so used to it."

Of the 229 students majoring in computer science in spring 2009, only seventeen were female, or 7 percent. When the ratio gets that out of whack, the women face special challenges. Chief among them is that there's no one to talk to.

"I'm not one of the boys," says Ashley. "I deal with stress by discussing it, and that's not what guys do." To fill the void, she recently joined Women in Computer Sciences, a small but congenial group of female students majoring in computer science, computer engineering, and related fields. "I wish I'd joined it earlier," she says. "I can talk about feelings with them, and they understand what I'm saying."

It wasn't always like this, according to Linda Ott, chair of the computer science department. Back in the early 1980s, more than a third of the students attracted to the alluring new field of computing were young women.

But by the end of the decade the boys were ascendant. Ott traces the shift to the appearance of computers in high school classrooms, an example of benign intentions gone awry. "I think that the guys took them over and created this geeky, gaming culture that's permeated computer science," she says. "We've struggled with that image ever since."

The super-nerd stereotype can also mislead guys, who are sometimes shocked, shocked to discover that computer science is lots harder than playing video games. Many get discouraged and leave the program.

Women drop out, too, but usually for other reasons. "If we get three new female majors or less, it's hard to keep them," says Ott. "They can be doing fine in class, but they run into guys in the labs who are muttering these three-letter acronyms, and they feel in over their head. It's much harder to have a sense of belonging when almost everyone else looks and acts differently."

Ashley thinks computer science (along with other male-dominated disciplines like mechanical and electrical engineering) struggles against the myth that it isn't a helping profession, like medicine or biology. "And that's not true," she says. "CS is in every aspect of our lives. I don't see how people could think its not helping people."

Though she would welcome a few more peers to commiserate with, Ashley is now blooming where she planted herself. "I have an extra feeling of achievement, knowing that I've gotten through something that other girls don't even try to do."

What the guys think

Males applying to Tech sometimes worry that they'll never find a girlfriend, a problem they can remedy by taking some initiative and getting involved in female-friendly activities. One mechanical engineering major suggests working in the Chemistry Learning Center. "If you are tutoring them, they have to sit with you for an hour each week," he says. Besides, he said, the shortage of females "helps with the studying."

Indeed, the effort required to succeed at Michigan Tech often trumps hormonal imperatives.

"The guys are focusing on college, getting their degree, and starting a career too," says Beth Wagner, assistant vice president for student life. "And many of the men are comfortable in an all-male environment.

That way, they don't have to negotiate relationships; I've heard them say it's one less thing they have to deal with."

"It is less stressful," says Kenny. "I'm not gonna care so much what I look like. I could go to class in my pajamas."

Resident assistant Ben sometimes wishes guys would care a little bit more about appearances. He oversees the computer science learning community in the Wadsworth residence hall; the group is theoretically co-ed, but women are outnumbered fourteen to one. It highlights a maturity issue, he says. "Wandering around the hall in boxers isn't appropriate."

There are some perks for the guys in the residence halls, who don't have to flip a coin to watch Hockey Night in Canada. As for romance, attitudes among Ben's male charges cover the ballpark. "There are definitely guys looking for a girlfriend, and there are definitely guys looking for a fling," he says. "And there are guys that aren't thinking about it."

Ben would like to see more women at Tech. They are a civilizing influence; even guys don't want to see other guys walking around in their underpants. "And I hear it from my residents. They say it's so nice having girls down the hall."

"It would smell better if there were more women," says Deryk, a student living in Wadsworth Hall. "If everyone thought a little more about hygiene, it would be good for me, too."

Deryk is lunching with friends in the Wadsworth Hall dining area. They are discussing the male-female ratio, albeit with some reluctance. "I only notice it when people mention it," says Divam, casting a baleful look at the interviewer.

"[Women] always seem to be around," says Ryan. "It really doesn't matter, because we are all friends."

That culture of acceptance cuts across the gender divide and is one of the best things about the University, says new graduate Jessica. "We are all different, and we take the time to get to know each other, instead of judging each other. I think that's what makes Michigan Tech so nice and homey; we're not as affected by the mainstream culture as other schools. What matters most for us is our education."

Jen agrees, and asks a question most any girl could relate to: "I came here because Michigan Tech has the best program in the state," she says, "but if I leave here with a degree and a guy, what's wrong with that?"

Michigan Tech average ACT composite by gender


Michigan Tech graduation rates (percent) by gender