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Ohio State’s unique “Allies for Women Engineers” program recruits male students to help create inclusive environment for all

A pioneering new OSU program seeks to make the culture within the College of Engineering more proactively inclusive of and welcoming to all students.  Engineering departments around the country have implemented programs with similar goals, yet Ohio State’s is unique in that it is both top-down (support from administration) and bottom-up (support from students). Faculty are also working on similar goals through the OSU partnership with the North Dakota State University Advocates and Allies program. Both programs are currently in their first year of implementation.

The AWE group with their mentor, Dr. Lisa Abrams in a group photoMentors and student members of AWE

It can be difficult to be a woman in a field traditionally dominated by men.  In recent years, much has been written about the scarcity of women in STEM fields, and the degree to which this is caused by an unwelcoming culture. Recent studies of the climate at Ohio State’s College of Engineering (conducted in 2008 and 2012) have shown that Ohio State is not immune from such problems. Some women did report being singled out by gender, or hearing derogatory stereotypes about women. Others simply felt isolated and found it difficult to be in the minority (currently, women make up roughly 20% of students in the College of Engineering).

Ohio State’s recently debuted Allies for Women Engineers (AWE) program seeks to proactively address such problems. Interested male students receive training to be effective allies for female students. These individuals also conduct workshops and do outreach at places like COE classes, student organizational meetings, and fraternity houses. The program is currently comprised of 11 male students who received a week of intense training before the Autumn semester began and continued training throughout the semester.

A male and a female student working with materials together in the classroomMale and female engineering students working with materials together to complete a project.

The program does ask allies to examine and try to minimize their own unconscious biases and to consider the perspectives of those in the minority, but it is not about assigning blame or painting the majority group as villains, says Dr. Lisa Abrams, one of the program mentors. Rather, the goal is to make the COE atmosphere inclusive and welcoming to all students and to help them work together as effectively as possible. Working collaboratively is especially important now that teamwork is essential in the professional world in general and the field of engineering in particular.

After the program has been in place for a while, another study will be conducted to formally assess its efficacy.  Early signs are positive, though. One woman who attended an AWE workshop said she had no idea there were people in the classroom who were so supportive. She felt empowered and excited—as though a weight had been lifted.

The program aligns with OSU President Michael Drake’s goal of “inclusive excellence.” It also aligns with the goals of the COE; indeed, Dr. Abrams credits Dean David Williams with helping to develop the idea after he attended a workshop presented by White Men As Full Diversity Partners, an organization which has worked with clients such as AT&T, Coca-Cola, and Lockheed Martin.

Finally, the AWE program aligns with industry trends. Dr. Abrams says Fortune 500 companies are excited about this program and others like it. They want graduates who know how to work in diverse environments, and how to participate in teams in such a way everyone’s voice is heard.

Those in favor of this initiative can show their support by taking a pledge of support or making a financial donation.

Contact Dr. Lisa Abrams for more information about the AWE program.