According to a recent study by the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), biomedical engineering is the most popular option for women studying engineering. Women receive 39% of first degrees, 34% of master’s degrees, and 32% of doctorates in the subject. At one institution, Michigan Tech, the numbers are even more pronounced, with women making up over 60% of its biomedical engineering department’s intake.

What can explain such figures? Are biomedical departments doing something right for female students — that others could emulate — or are other factors at work? In light of the Insight Feature on page 38 of this issue looking at initiatives in the physical sciences, including materials, chemistry and optics, to encourage female academic and research staff, the findings are interesting.

The ASEE puts the trend partly down to the overall doubling in the number of women entering engineering in the last ten years. However, the average across all engineering subjects sits at around 20%. So is there something special about biomedical engineering?

Richard Heckel, a retired engineering professor who has tracked engineering education for the last 35 years, thinks that the popularity of biomedical engineering can be put down to changing attitudes through the generations and a ‘qualitative influence factor’. “Girls weren’t supposed to get involved in the quantitative stuff, the math and science,” he says. “And most engineering fields, traditionally, were seen as quantitative. All that has changed now.” Even so, could the perceived qualitative nature of biomedical engineering make the subject seem more accessible to women? Taking a more cynical attitude, could it be that educators are more likely to recommend female students pursue a ‘soft’ rather than a ‘hard’ science degree?

Graduate student Sara Koehler at Northwestern University chose biomedical engineering “because it has more of that direct impact on people’s lives and on their health, as opposed to making a better gear for a car. I want to see what I do affect people’s lives on a more personal level.” The desire to see a social utility in their actions marks biomedical engineering students out from those pursuing more traditional fields, says David Nelson who heads Michigan Tech’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. “[Traditional engineering students] want to work on new cars or aircraft. They really like to tinker with things.”

Nelson also thinks that a perceived lack of a glass ceiling could be a draw. “Women recognize this as a relatively new field, one having great advancement opportunities. It may have the perception of being a field that is more welcoming to women engineers.” Interestingly Janice Turlington, graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, cites her reasons for choosing biomedical engineering as “the ability, or at least the opportunity, to be very creative. In other avenues of engineering there’s more rigidity to it. In biomedical engineering, it’s really brand new. There are no cut and dry answers.” Could it be that women just like the challenge of something really new where they can succeed without any preconceptions? Could the conclusion be, therefore, that universities and research institutions need to make sure that they are at the cutting edge of research to attract female students, as well as worrying about equality of treatment to keep them?

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(02)05201-X