When Morgan Weatherspoon sits in class, it's obvious she's in the minority.
Weatherspoon, a chemical engineering major at the University of Oklahoma, is enrolled in a summer course at OU. Out of a class of about 30 people, Weatherspoon can count on one hand the number of other women in the class.
Being one of only a few female students in OU's College of Engineering has never been a problem for her, she said — she's never been made to feel inferior, and her perspective is generally respected. At the same time, she said, it's difficult not to notice.
“It's pretty obvious when you look at it,” she said. “It's just really apparent.”
Weatherspoon, 20, became interested in engineering as a high school senior. She had always been interested in science and math, she said.
But she hadn't given the field much consideration until she attended High School Girls Day at OU, an outreach event designed to spark interest in engineering among high school girls.
“It really opened me up to what engineering was,” she said.
Now a junior, Weatherspoon said being one of only a few women in her department has had an impact on her social life. Because her department is dominated by male students, most of her friends are men, she said. While that isn't a problem, they don't always share her interests.
“I don't have someone that I can just go shopping with,” she said.
Although more than half of American college students are women, female engineering students like Weatherspoon are still a minority in their own departments. But it's something higher education leaders hope to see change in the years to come.
Both in Oklahoma and nationwide, female students overall outnumber their male counterparts. During the 2010-11 academic year, just over 58 percent of degrees and certifications awarded at Oklahoma's public colleges and universities went to women, according to data from the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education.
Nationally, female students received an estimated 56.8 percent of bachelor's degrees during the 2010-11 academic year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Female undergraduates have been in the majority since they overtook male undergraduates during the 1981-82 academic year.
But despite their numbers overall, women continue to be underrepresented in engineering programs.
During the fall semester of 2011, just 16.8 percent of undergraduates and 20 percent of graduate students in Oklahoma State University's College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology were women.
At OU's College of Engineering, women made up 20.9 percent of last fall's enrollment.
Women made up just 16 percent in the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, which includes the Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering and the ConocoPhillips School of Geology and Geophysics.
That underrepresentation has implications for the nation's work force.
According to a report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, women fill about half the jobs in the U.S. economy.
But in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math, referred to as STEM, women fill less than a quarter of jobs.
While women continue to hold a disproportionately low number of undergraduate degrees in STEM-related fields, even those women who do hold degrees in those fields are less likely to go work in those fields than their male counterparts.
Instead, women with those degrees tend to be more likely to go into other fields like education or health care, the study says.
It's no secret that women make up the minority in American engineering programs.
But as a national conversation about college completion and employment heats up, higher education leaders are beginning to take greater notice.
President Barack Obama has called for greater emphasis on boosting the percentage of female students in engineering programs. In 2011, the Obama administration launched the Women in STEM Speakers Bureau, an initiative that sends women who work in those fields to speak with girls in grades 6 to 12 about what the field involves.
Giving girls a better idea of what the field of engineering looks like is one of the keys to drawing their interest, said Simin Pulat, associate dean for undergraduate engineering programs in OU's School of Industrial and Systems Engineering.
One of the barriers that keep women out of engineering fields is simply a lack of information about what an engineer does in the workplace, Pulat said. Engineering is a broader field than most teachers and students think, she said.
“One does not have to like cars to be a mechanical engineer,” she said. “A mechanical engineer can solve environmental problems or design and implement processes for efficient use of energy.”
The underrepresentation of women in engineering is cause for concern, Pulat said, because it hampers the university's efforts to produce more graduates who will later go on to work in a field that is a critical part of the U.S. economy.
“In order to increase the number of engineering graduates, we must increase engineering enrollment,” she said. “There is a talent pool out there that we have not fully reached out to.”