30 for 30 Profile: UT Austin Women in Engineering Program
Established in 1991 by women engineering faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, the Women in Engineering Program (WEP) connects students, educators and professionals to the world of engineering through recruitment initiatives, supportive structures and educational services to promote the success and advancement of women in engineering.
WEP is a Women in Engineering Proactive Network (WEPAN) 30 for 30 Institutional Champion. The two organizations share a long history, as WEP was founded out of the first conference WEPAN held thirty years ago.
“Being a WEPAN member is a source of professional development for staff members, both as a space to learn and grow from others who are also doing this work and a way to disseminate best practices and resources,” says WEP director Tricia Berry.
“The work that we do can sometimes feel isolating, so having a community where everyone is dealing with the same successes and struggles is valuable."
As WEP director, Berry leads efforts to recruit and graduate women in UT Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering and works on systems to advance gender equity in engineering. A UT Austin graduate herself, she worked for WEP as a student and while working in industry, would often return to the program as a volunteer and role model for students.
Part of WEP’s success is due to its initiatives for first and second year undergraduate students, each of which have several unique programs. WEP’s First Year Initiative (FYI) focuses on learning communities and peer mentoring, which help students understand where and how to access resources as they navigate the transition to college. Close to 200 peer mentors every year volunteer to be part FYI. “There is a strong spirit of giving back and volunteering at UT Austin,” says Berry, “and this is a valuable way to give back. Many of our mentors had great relationships with their own mentors and want to continue that tradition.”
WEP’s Women in their Second Year of Engineering (WISE) program continues that sense of community while guiding students as they navigate their identities as engineers and begin to think about what careers they want to pursue with their degrees. WISE programming brings in alumni and industry role models to share their experiences and stories and helps students develop skills like networking. These initiatives have been instrumental in closing gender gaps in engineering retention rates.
WEP also has robust recruitment efforts, working to help high school students make a more informed choice about their engineering major and to navigate the application and admissions process. “By providing opportunities for students and their families to get to know us and the campus, we’ve helped to not only get more women to apply, but to help students feel more engaged and more comfortable participating in our programming once they’ve enrolled,” says Berry. Additionally, she makes sure that WEP thinks creatively about how to provide programming and ways to grow and evolve. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, WEP was able to bring in volunteers and alumni from all over the world who couldn’t have participated in person.
WEP actively works toward a goal of 50% women undergraduate engineering enrollment. When the program was founded, the number of women undergraduate engineering was about 15%, and the entering class this year is on pace to be 33-34%. “It’s a steady upward increase,” says Berry. “There’s so much more research and research-based programming today and a greater recognition of women in engineering and engineering education as a field of study. We’ve been doing this for so long, we’re ahead of the game in our knowledge and understanding.”