Although the number of female engineers today has greatly improved since the early 1980s, when only 5.8% of engineers in the U.S. were women, it’s still surprisingly low. Currently, only 14% of engineers are women, according to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee.
“In the U.S., about 18 percent to 20 percent of engineering students are now women, an improvement over the abysmal numbers of 25 years ago,” says Joanne McGrath Cohoon, an associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia, where 31% of undergraduate engineering students are female.
Reasons that have been suggested for low female graduation rates include lack of female engineering role models, misconceptions of what it is like to be an engineer, and having fewer technical problem-solving opportunities through K-12 compared to men. Cohoon believes that lack of confidence is a huge factor, especially competing with men.
Breaking the Stereotype
“Researchers at Stanford University recently published new findings that women engineering students perform as well as men, but are more likely than men to switch to a different major,” says Cohoon. “These women switch because they don't believe that their skills are good enough and they don't feel like they fit in engineering.”
The stereotype that links masculinity to technology is, unfortunately, still prevalent and difficult to overcome.
Although universities and high schools are working together to encourage more female students to explore science and engineering, industry also needs to step up and do more.
Changing Our World: True Stories of Women Engineers by Sybil E. Hatch was published by American Society of Civil Engineers in 2006.
“This is especially important now, when unemployment is high and our economy is weak,” says Cohoon. “We cannot afford to lose anyone with the technical skills to create a sustainable future, improve health, build our cyber and physical infrastructure, and enhance personal and societal security. A diverse set of minds needs to tackle those problems. But we are largely missing out on women's intelligence, creativity, and values in solving the problems we all face.”
“With the pending retirement of many of our hardest-working baby boomer engineers, it’s up to the next generation workforce to step up and take on these exciting careers in engineering, and it’s up to the seasoned generation of engineers to drive excitement in this next generation workforce,” adds Stephanie Hill, president of Lockheed Martin’s Information Systems & Global Solutions-Civil division.
Enhancing STEM Curriculum
Lockheed Martin has made a commitment to K-12 schools across the country to help engineering and math “come alive.”
“We work directly with superintendents to understand which schools need help in infusing exciting STEM curriculum into the classroom,” she says. “In some instances, we bring teachers into our facilities for externships, giving them hands-on experiences that they take back to their classrooms. Our employees also partner with teachers, and visit classrooms periodically to discuss their current work and answer questions about career opportunities. This helps ‘put a face on engineering’ and provides career role models that many students are seeking.”
Wendy Hawkins, executive director at the Intel Foundation, believes middle school is a critical decision-making time for female students. “Kids finally have the education to make their own class schedule choices, and exciting and engaging work appeals to them," she says.
To foster this, Intel is collaborating with SRC Undergraduate Research Opportunities (SRC-URO), Engineering is Elementary (EIE), and other programs and organizations to promote engineering awareness among female students in the public school system. The Intel Foundation also established the Intel Science Talent Research, a pre-college science competition, which has attracted strong female high school candidates.
“Until the stereotypes are gone, and technical women experience the same conditions as their male classmates, those of us who teach engineering and computing can take individual action in the classroom,” says Cohoon. “Give women lots of opportunities to succeed at technical tasks. Verbally encourage them—tell them you know they will be great engineers or computing professionals, and why they will want that type of career. With these steps, we could double the number of technical people working to make this a better world.”
Mark Crawford is an independent writer.
In the U.S. about 18 percent to 20 percent of engineering students are now women, an improvement over the abysmal numbers of 25 years ago.
Joanne McGrath Cohoon, associate professor, Department of Science, Technology, and Society, University of Virginia