Where Are All the Women?

February 19, 2009

I used to be an engineer. For eight years, I designed satellites. The work was engrossing at times, and I loved designing with CAD (Computer Aided Design). It was like getting paid to play a video game. But the more time I spent working as an engineer, the more interested I became in a problem unrelated to satellite design: Where were all the other women? In my department of approximately 140 mechanical design engineers, I was one of maybe 10 women. My situation was not unusual. In 2007, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that women made up only 13.5 percent of the engineering workforce, more in some fields like chemical engineering and less in other fields like mechanical engineering.

Why is this? As AAUW reported in Where the Girls Are: The Facts about Gender Equity in Education, girls earn higher grades on average than boys in high school, even in math and science classes. But research shows that even very capable girls are less likely to express interest in an engineering career than are boys. In one study of mathematically gifted individuals, David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow found that women were more likely to secure degrees in the humanities, life sciences, and social sciences than in mathematics, computer science, engineering, or the physical sciences; the reverse was true for men. Jacquleynne S. Eccles’ suggests that part of the reason for this difference is that women are more likely than men to want people-oriented jobs that provide direct benefits to society.

Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day 2009 poster

Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day 2009 poster

Engineers design pretty much everything we use from computers and cars to diapers and dishwashers. When women aren’t involved in the design of these products, women’s perspectives are not brought to the design table (or computer screen). In the same way that Ruth Ginsburg brings a valuable perspective, different from her male colleagues, to issues brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, women engineers bring valuable life experiences to the design process that are different from male engineers. For women to be full participants in our society, we need to be well represented among those who design and make the things that we use on a daily basis.

Fortunately, there is some evidence that it is possible to increase girls’ interest in engineering by simply explaining to girls what engineers do and how they help people. Today is Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. Introduce a girl to engineering today by showing her some of the videos of young women engineers at Engineer Your Life, a website committed to repositioning engineering as an exciting, creative, lucrative, and flexible career choice for young women.

Does your branch have a program — or want to start one — focused on increasing opportunities for girls in science and engineering? Visit the AAUW website for information about program support and grants available through the National Girls Collaborative Project.

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By:   |   February 19, 2009

3 Comments

  1. Dorothy McBride says:

    This deficit of women in engineering has been going on for a very long time…forever. While we need to focus on the choice that women and girls make for careers as you do in your comment, don’t forget that there is ongoing gender discrimination against women in engineering. It’s not just the obvious kind of discrimination but that the idea of “an engineer” is a male idea, sort of like ‘nurse’ still has a feminine connotation despite the fact that more and more men are becoming nurses. When boys and young men tell their parents that they want to major in engineering, parents take it as normal, even desirable. It will be a big hurdle to reach the point where when little Sally tells mom and dad that she plans to be an engineer they don’t think: “well, that’s unusual, but if that’s what she wants….”

  2. Nicole Callahan says:

    NPR’s Science Friday talks with Leslie Collins, executive director of the National Engineers Week Foundation, about the group’s “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” event. http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/200902201

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