Women In Engineering: Inspired to Wired

April 07, 2011

When Elizabeth Bragg became the first American woman to earn an engineering degree in 1876, it seemed certain that women would advance in the field. Following in Bragg’s footsteps, Kate Gleason became the first woman to be admitted into Cornell University’s engineering school in 1884 and later became the first woman associate of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. In addition to these formally trained women, self-taught scholars such as Emily Warren Roebling, who took over the building of the Brooklyn Bridge when her father-in-law and husband were unable to assist, used her aptitude in math and physics to make the decisions necessary to construct one of America’s best-known monuments.

Today, women earn engineering degrees in a wide range of topics including chemical, civil, mechanical, and computer engineering. However, according to the new report Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, women make up only 11 percent of all engineering professionals even though they represent more than 20 percent of all engineering graduates. In an attempt to find the cause behind this gap, the authors surveyed 3,700 women with engineering degrees. Their findings reflect those in AAUW’s Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics report. Many women said that they left the field because they felt undervalued by their supervisors and peers and disliked the workplace environment. Others left because they lost interest in the field, wanted to spend more time with their families, or were unhappy with their working conditions and salaries. Several women said that they felt alone in a male-dominated field.

But this should not discourage women who want to enter engineering or who are currently within this field. There is a lot we can do to recruit and retain more women engineers, including identifying and celebrating the outstanding engineers of today. Limor Fried, who earned her master’s degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a shining example of a successful woman in engineering. She graces the cover — the first woman to do so — of April’s edition of Wired, a top technology magazine. Many of her projects are fun, insightful, and useful, including several social-defense mechanisms such as the Wave Bubble, which jams cell phone signals to thwart annoying chatters in public.

Women like Fried are setting a great example for younger girls and helping to increase awareness and appreciation of women engineers, and AAUW is working to do the same! To increase the number of women engineers and make work environments more welcoming, AAUW is collaborating with nine other organizations, including the Society of Women Engineers and the Association for Women in Science, to introduce 10,000 10-year-old girls to the field of engineering by May 8, 2011, as part of the 10 for 10 campaign.

To join our work on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), find us on Facebook or Twitter @AAUWSTEM.

This post was written by AAUW STEM Programs Intern Gaby Obedoza.

By:   |   April 07, 2011

3 Comments

  1. zing says:

    Limor Fried is not the first woman on the cover of Wired, that would be Laurie Anderson way back in Mar 1994.

    Perhaps you meant the first female engineer on the cover of Wired?

  2. Cheryl Fillekes says:

    “Many women said that they left the field because they felt undervalued by their supervisors and peers and disliked the workplace environment. Others left because they lost interest in the field, wanted to spend more time with their families, or were unhappy with their working conditions and salaries. Several women said that they felt alone in a male-dominated field.”

    It’s interesting that, sandwiched between two AAUW blog posts on sexual assault on campus, we have the happy happy report, including the NSF research. However, in its canvassing women on “why they left engineering” in none of its surveys did the NSF allow the interviewees to select sexual harassment and assault on the job. They’d have to choose “I didn’t like it” or “I *felt* undervalued.”

    Didn’t like WHAT exactly? The constant threat of sexual assault in remote job sites like, say, in the Mideast perhaps? Being groped by supervisors, co-workers? The outright (and often legal) discrimination?

    When Schlumberger International was recruiting mechanical engineers to supervise oil well services operations at Cornell when I was an undergraduate, the women were literally told to leave the room. When the female mechanical engineering students complained to the administration, we were told that because SI had separate hiring divisions in the US vs. International, that they were not subject to US EEOC laws, even when recruiting in the US, and besides, they wouldn’t be able to send us overseas. Oh, yes. You think that kind of thing might have had something to do with women leaving the field? Being told outright to leave the room? How can we take Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to “sit at the table” when we’re not even allowed to be in the room?

    That was a long time ago you say? 1980? Things have gotten a lot better since then? Fast forward to 2005, when Jamie Leigh Jones, a computer support tech shipped off to Iraq by her employer, Halliburton/KBR. She was placed in an all-male barracks and was promptly drugged and gang-raped by her esteemed colleagues. At the hospital, the rape kit was mysteriously “lost” and she herself was locked in a shipping container with no food or water for days, and was only able to escape because she convinced the *armed* guard to lend her his cellphone so she could call her dad back in Houston.

    And yet, in this highly scientific National Science Foundation report, there is no data to distinguish the highly discriminatory behavior up to and including sexual assault and even drug/gang rape of women engineers at the hands of US and international corporations from women who “don’t like” the boss or who “don’t like” wielding a soldering iron.

    “Many organizations have succeeded in creating
    cultures that are intolerant of sexual harassment. The same
    needs to be extended to cover other types of hostile and
    unacceptable behavior in the workplace.” In the whole report, that’s the only mention of what *really* goes on. Pretty vague. They need some SMARTer goals than this — Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. And perhaps the NSF needs to start monitoring its own grantees for EEOC compliance, and pulling the grants of university professors who think female grad students are fair game while they’re at it. Hmmm?

    When frat boys grow up to be bosses, they are much, much worse than they were back at the house. THIS is the problem, not that “women don’t really like engineering” or are insufficiently inspired.

  3. Building Design Bay Area says:

    Great article I have read it . Perhaps you meant the first female engineer on the cover of Wired?

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