Women Wanted: Increasing Gender Diversity at RIT
by Abby Bratton | published Nov. 3rd, 2018
The gender composition of RIT’s student population has long been a subject of conversation.
“RIT is still one-to-two in the gender ratio, one woman to every two men, which is not typical, because most schools are more like 60:40 — 60 percent women,” said Darci Lane-Williams, director of the Center for Women and Gender. “We see that some other tech schools are in the same range as us; some actually have fewer women. RIT has been pretty intentional in doing things to make certain colleges more attractive to women students.”
Some of RIT’s colleges, such as the College of Health Sciences and Technology and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, already draw in a high percentage of women.
“As of 2017 enrollment numbers, we have five colleges [in which] women make up a higher percentage of the student body; but, because you have colleges where women make up so few of the students, it kind of flattens out,” Lane-Williams explained.
RIT offers an interactive report of its enrollment data, including charts showing the percentage of male and female students by year, college and more. According to this site, the total percentage of women enrolled at the school remained fairly steady over the past nine years, fluctuating between a low of 32.5 percent and a high of 34.2 percent.
“There have been improvements — steady improvements,” Lane-Williams said. “The focus has been on getting women into STEM fields and making RIT degree programs more attractive to women. Obviously if you can give more financial aid, nicer award packages, that’s a draw, and have majors that women would be interested in ... There are certain fields that tend to be more attractive to women. That’s not to say that women can’t do any work in any field, but there are some that draw in more women.”
Ian Mortimer, vice president for Enrollment Management, also emphasized this idea of appealing to female students by broadening RIT’s academic focus.
“Part of the future is not only further diversifying from a gender perspective in technology and engineering ... but I would argue more importantly, for the health of the institution and also building a more equitable culture, is growing enrollment outside of those areas.” Mortimer said. “Once we start diversifying our students in academics, I think what we’ll see is a more diversified equity in terms of gender distribution across the university.”
"We find that yes, we have a smaller percentage of women, but our women tend to graduate. They also tend to be very, very involved."
For colleges where female enrollment has historically been low, Lane-Williams said that a lot of the work to support women students comes from the university’s “Women in ...” programs: Women in Engineering, Women in Technology, Women in Computing, Women in Science and Women in Business (the latter is a club, rather than a departmental program).
“Having those programs in place, where their intention is to bring in women students [and] support those students, has definitely helped those colleges see their numbers go up,” she said.
The President’s Commission on Women also contributes to RIT’s efforts to increase gender diversity. While the commission has not yet received its charge from President Munson, Lane-Williams reviewed some of the recommendations that group made under President Destler with the aim of increasing the percentage of women at RIT. These included embedding gender diversity as a goal within the university’s strategic plan, strengthening marketing and branding efforts to draw women in and increasing the acceptance rate of women into specific colleges, among other suggestions.
Lane-Williams went on to discuss the role that the Center for Women and Gender plays in RIT’s efforts towards gender diversity.
“I like to say [these] are our three primary functions: the response and advocacy for people that have been impacted by Title IX; the prevention, education and outreach — trying to create a safe environment and trying to educate folks on how they can be a part of that; and then we celebrate the accomplishments of women,” she said.
Lane-Williams felt that there is a lot to celebrate, too.
“We find that, yes, we have a smaller percentage of women, but our women tend to graduate. They also tend to be very, very involved,” she said.
The Center is affiliated with all of the “Women in ... ” programs, in addition to some direct efforts of their own.
“We’ve been pushing the ratio issue; but to get the percentage of women up, many things need to happen on many levels. It’s not a quick fix, and it takes all areas doing their part to increase the number of women,” Lane-Williams acknowledged.
One of the ways that her office has been addressing this matter is a campaign they call “Beyond the Ratio.”
“It’s mostly passive marketing where we say, 'Did you know half of the deans at RIT are women, but not half of the students?'” Lane-Williams explained. “Or [that] half of the administrators in the Office of the President are women? Just to let people know that we have lots of women in leadership roles. So even though the student ratio is what it is ... there are women here.”
There are also some objectives that the Center hopes RIT will be able to pursue in the future.
“We would love at some point to be able to track gender so that we can see everyone on the spectrum,” Lane-Williams added. “And it would be helpful for us to know because we know [that] just by looking at the student body and the students that use services and the students that come to programs, we’re seeing a steady increase in the number of gender-nonconforming, transgender [and] genderqueer students.”
Lane-Williams warned that progress will be gradual when it comes to the gender ratio.
“You’re not just going to see the ratio shoot up [in] one day. You’re going to see it rise across the campus and then you’ll look up one day and it’s 40 percent — which is the goal,” she said.
"You’re not just going to see the ratio shoot up [in] one day."
For his part, Mortimer believes that the wider trend of women becoming more involved in STEM fields will spread naturally to the campus, especially given the framework already in place for female students.
“My sense is that demographically ... I think there’s kind of a shifting of females getting involved in those fields, and I think it’s going to accelerate big-time,” he said. “I’m not sure we’re going to have to do a ton more.”
Both agreed that one of the main requirements at this point was simply spreading the word about all of the programs that RIT offers, whether for women specifically or just in terms of academic opportunities beyond engineering and technology.
“The cool thing is that a lot of colleges and universities, when they want to kind of shift, they have to maybe create more expectation than reality on things that they want to diversify on. I think that the wonderful thing about RIT is that we really, truly have quality across the whole enterprise, and we don’t have to make it up,” Mortimer said.
Lane-Williams echoed this sentiment. “You ever hear people say, ‘If you build it they will come,’ from "Field of Dreams"? Well, we don’t even have to build it; it’s kind of already here, but you have to know it’s here.” She pointed out the enlarged image of a vintage Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute advertisement that hangs in the Center for Women and Gender with a declaration across the top in bold, all-capital lettering: "WOMEN WANTED." “If they want to do some direct, overt, in-your-face marketing, they’ve done it before. We can do it again.”