Where are the women engineers?

This article is part of TechXchange: Women in Sscience and engineering (WISE)

What you will learn:

  • Why Women Usually Leave Bachelor Degree Studies for Engineering
  • Why Women Typically Leave the Engineering Field
  • How to be more inclusive of women in professional engineering.

In 2019, women outperformed men when it comes to obtaining a bachelor’s degree in the United States 57.5%. Women actually accounted for the majority of bachelor’s degrees since the early 1980s. College rates are also increasing among black Americans, especially women, although racial gaps are still important. This steady rise is positive to see, but when you look at the more homogenized field of engineering, an industry so essential to the tech economy, there is a disappointing lack of progress.

Only 13% professional engineers are women.

While business leaders know the strength inherent in team diversity, the priority of building these teams has not yet become mainstream in the engineering industry. When teams are mostly made up of white men, the world’s issues aren’t looked at through other lenses, which means that many of the world’s issues go unresolved. Diverse teams inspire vital conversations, new questions and breakthroughs. From a business perspective, this equates to more opportunities for success.

To truly increase representation in engineering requires a holistic approach – ensuring early and equal access to education, reforming the college curriculum and experience, building supportive trajectories, and leadership in the industry.

Early access

Obviously, you have to prioritize diversity in the engineering industry to really have an impact on this imbalance, starting in the first classrooms. Entire organizations now exist to promote girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. However, access to engineering as a field of study remains largely inequitable, creating an initial hurdle before that inspiration can even occur. (Fig. 1).

% {[ data-embed-type=”image” data-embed-id=”609d2546a314ee93398b467d” data-embed-element=”span” data-embed-size=”640w” data-embed-alt=”1. Girls Inc. of the Pacific Northwest tours the Tektronix campus in Beaverton, Ore. with members of Tektronix’s Women in Technology group.” data-embed-src=”https://img.electronicdesign.com/files/base/ebm/electronicdesign/image/2021/05/Fig_1_GirlsInc1.609d25462a6ff.png?auto=format&fit=max&w=1440″ data-embed-caption=”1. Girls Inc. of the Pacific Northwest tours the Tektronix campus in Beaverton, Ore. with members of Tektronix’s Women in Technology group.” ]}%

Unless students attend special or private schools, or grow up in households with tutors who pursue higher education, there are barriers to entry. Many students don’t even have basic engineering exposure.

Not only should basic engineering be part of a school curriculum, but demonstrations and hands-on activities are also important to show how science and math can be imaginatively applicable. These should be provided by professional engineers from a variety of backgrounds to demonstrate that anyone, regardless of gender or race, can become an engineer as well.

University curriculum

Universities also face a recruitment and retention problem. Composite women 24% undergraduate engineering students in 2019. But among them, only 3.2% identified as Hispanic and 1.3% like black. Low enrollment rates in higher education engineering programs among women may be related to how the subject is taught.

In electrical engineering, computer engineering, and more, lessons often focus on books, processes, and data. To make these fields of study more accessible to women and people of color, there should be more emphasis on the application of technology and its clear translation into jobs they can imagine themselves in in innovative companies than they admire.

Once women are in the program, they need an ally and mentorship to stay. Using inclusive examples in education, like referencing famous women and engineering people of color, rather than just white men, creates a stronger sense of belonging. For rising students, the question is no longer “who will be the first?” to break through a field, but “will you be next?” When underserved communities feel there is a place for them and, better yet, opportunities to succeed, they thrive.

As 32% of women drop out of college STEM programs, community has been shown to be especially important in helping women succeed and feel connected, more than men. Women need partnerships more because they are already struggling with stigma, silos and impostor syndrome.

Teachers who actively advocate for female students, through applications for extensive opportunities or personal referrals for specialist groups or internships, build student confidence to meet challenges. This positions them for growth and leadership, and these opportunities can be critical to subsequent success. If women feel discouraged or unqualified to apply, this only perpetuates the problem of male counterparts advancing at a faster pace.

Enter engineering

Among the women who obtained their diploma and entered the profession, only 30% state that they have been in engineering for 20 years or more. Given the low representation, it’s no wonder that when women are part of critical teams developing world-class products, they often fall prey to strangers, resulting in a feeling of isolation. Organizations can try to better recruit and create supportive resources, but the industry as a whole should ask: why aren’t women and women of color choosing more to become and stay engineers?

When I started my career with the global test and measurement company Tektronix in 1999, I was the only female on my engineering team; there weren’t a lot of people of color working in engineering either. Today, more than 20 years later, I am often still the only woman in the teams I lead.

As a woman engineer, I have often felt isolated. Women who have left the engineering profession, 30% cite organizational climate as the reason. This is why a sense of community is essential. I created a “Women in Technology” (WIT) group in my company in 2016 to foster an inclusive environment for women. What started when me and a colleague chatting over lunch has grown to 300 members who now host high profile speakers, and it has become an influential part of the overall Tektronix culture. (Fig. 2).

% {[ data-embed-type=”image” data-embed-id=”609d2562a314ee88398b46a9″ data-embed-element=”span” data-embed-size=”640w” data-embed-alt=”2. Tektronix Women in Technology group members at WE19—the world’s largest conference for women engineers.” data-embed-src=”https://img.electronicdesign.com/files/base/ebm/electronicdesign/image/2021/05/Fig_2_we19group1.609d25615c319.png?auto=format&fit=max&w=1440″ data-embed-caption=”2. Tektronix Women in Technology group members at WE19—the world’s largest conference for women engineers.” ]}%

While fostering networking, community and collaboration, the group has led to an increase in the number of women in engineering and leadership positions at Tektronix. We have a female CEO and a gender balanced management team.

Since college, I hope to see a change in the number of women working in engineering. What I saw was slow. While I am proud of the innovations that I have contributed so far in my career, such as new high-end waveform generators, I look forward to continuing to innovate within more diverse teams around the world. ‘to come up.

This is because diverse teams are successful. Building more of them in the future depends on a holistic approach, from accessing STEM education at a younger age, advocating in college programs, and recruiting and retention at the professional level. As engineers, we solve problems. And prioritizing this one will lead to positive impacts in the real world.

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