On Being Female at IIT

I never thought that I would study engineering. I can actually remember telling friends in high school that engineering would be the last thing I would major in. Fast forward two years later and here I am, studying mechanical engineering at Illinois Tech.

I also never thought that I would have more than the obvious to say about being female. I never felt that gender made a difference in the friends that I had, the decisions I made, or the decisions other people made about me. I only began to think about gender when I began my engineering degree at IIT.

As you may know, IIT’s student body is roughly 70% male and 30% female. Guys hear this and worry about finding cute girls. Girls hear this and get excited to have their choice of guys. Maybe others think differently when they encounter a skewed gender balance like this, but those thoughts are what first came to my mind.

What I’ve learned as an IIT student is that gender is much more than a biological binary only relevant to your love life. Although gender equality has been legally ensured for over 40 years, women are still dealing with a fading legacy of discrimination. We are not barred from pursuing anything, but we often are not exposed to fields (tech particularly) with fewer women.

Because IIT is a tech school, the women here go against the grain. I know that by the time I get to my last year here, there will be very few girls left in my mechanical classes. I haven’t had any female teachers for major classes. I really hope that the company I work for after graduation has female engineers on the team. As my education and career continue, I am more and more likely to be the only woman in the room. It takes a little extra strength and courage to be the odd (wo)man out, but I’ve never felt alone thus far.

For this, I have IIT to thank. The women who study here are smart, studious, and unafraid of following their passions. There are so many female student leaders on campus. Our SGA president has been female for as long as most can remember. The executive boards of most student organizations have a majority of female members. Our three sororities on campus are very active in Greek Council, the governing body of Greek life at IIT. Our female student athletes kick butt on and off the field. If you meet a girl from IIT, it’s likely that she’s doing big things. It’s easy to make friends with girls here; we’re always excited to talk to new girls and we want you to be our lab partner. We all have school in common, a strong connection that leads to lasting friendships.

One of my favorite organizations on campus is the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). They have bi-weekly meetings to talk about leadership and engineering with other women. It’s a supportive environment, a great place to meet girls with similar interests, and a lot of fun. If you’re a national member, there’s a national conference that you can attend yearly. It’s a great place to network with other female students and women in industry. SWE also posts career opportunities for women in engineering and computer science on their website.

I do think about being female as an IIT student, more than I ever have before. However, as a woman pursuing a career in engineering (a 20% female field), I think that IIT is giving me so much. I am building strong friendships with women I have a lot in common with. I’m finding ways to feel supported by connecting with girls outside of my classes. I see my female classmates scoring amazing jobs and internships in tech and then excelling on the job. I feel focused here and I feel like everyone, staff or student, male or female, wants me to succeed. If anything, being female at IIT is empowering, fun, and a positive experience.


So to anyone who is concerned about the gender ratio at IIT:

Girls—There’s less of us, but you’re making an amazing choice for your future. You will never feel alone here.

Girl-Seekers—There may not be quantity, but there’s definitely quality. How many people can say that their girlfriend is beautiful, sweet… and an engineer? If you’re still worried: It’s Chicago! If you can’t find who you’re looking for somewhere in this city, you may not find her anywhere.


Things That I Didn’t Know About IIT (that everyone should)

1. So many energy projects


Assembling the Wind Turbine by Stuart Field

Seriously, so many. IIT operates three advanced wind turbines for research purposes. There’s a Smart Electric Vehicle Charging Station on campus with nine electric vehicle charging stations. IIT’s Galvin Center and the US Department of Energy developed the first functional smart microgrid in the country through a $13 million partnership—and it’s on our campus. The university also sponsors a ton of research on clean coal technologies and electric vehicles.


IIT’s WISER Facilities

IIT’s commitment to energy is making a huge impact locally and globally. The school just received a $3 million dollar grant from the USDA to implement microgrid technology at the University of the British Virgin Islands. IIT leads a similar project in Korea. The university also works with the City of Chicago to expand the use of solar power in the city.


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2. Tech Park

You could think of Tech Park as a farm for technology companies. Startup ventures rent state-of-the art labs and office space in IIT buildings. The startups eventually blossom into companies that employ hundreds of people (and they love hiring IIT students and grads). Tech Park currently hosts around two dozen companies and has helped to launch 30 startups since its inception.


One of the many research facilities in Tech Park

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3. We’re a part of the NCAA Division III


Newly turfed Stuart Field– check out that skyline in the background!

IIT transitioned from the NAIA to NCAA Division III in 2012. The D3 jump has led (and will lead) to a lot of facility improvements and the addition of new sports teams. This year, we added a women’s lacrosse team and updated Stuart Field to turf.


4. Greek Life

Yes, IIT has Greek life! Chapters on campus include Alpha Sigma Alpha, Alpha Sigma Phi, Delta Tau Delta, Kappa Phi Delta, Omega Delta, Pi Kappa Phi, Phi Kappa Sigma, Triangle, and Zeta Pi Omega—3 sororities and 6 fraternities. IIT is the only university in Chicago with sorority houses, deftly circumventing a Chicago brothel law preventing too many women from living under one roof. Something especially unique about IIT’s Greek life: all houses surround a big, grassy quad on campus, which creates a special sense of community between the chapters.


A map of the quad, located just south of the MTCC


The brothers of Pi Kappa Phi hanging out on the porch during the first warm day of 2014