The EE Gender Gap Is Widening

Electrical engineering faces an age-old question: What do women want?

PHOTO: Fly Fernandez/Zefa/Corbis

Walk into a classroom of environmental engineering students and, odds are, nearly half of them will be women. Now head next door to an electrical engineering class: you’ll likely find eight men for every woman.

The failure to recruit and retain more women in electrical and computer engineering—large fields with lots of students—is a major reason the representation of women in U.S. engineering as a whole has remained so low for so long. Last year, only 18.1 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in engineering awarded by U.S. schools went to women. And things are getting worse: that’s the lowest level in more than a decade.

Electrical engineering has one of the lowest proportions of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women, a meager 12.4 percent last year, down from an already low 14 percent the year before, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. It’s not the lowest—computer engineering, at 9.2 percent, is at the bottom—but its proportion of women is less than a third that of biomedical or environmental engineering.

Experts see in these differences a larger pattern: ”Women seek areas where the societal benefits are very apparent,” says Diane Matt, executive director of the Women in Engineering Proactive Network, in Denver. ”They want careers that have a positive impact on the world.”

Not that there aren’t social benefits to all areas of engineering—the problem is one of perception. Eleanor Baum, dean of engineering at Cooper Union, in New York City, and an IEEE Fellow, says electrical engineers are not sending a compelling message about their profession. ”Instead of trying to explain what’s a power engineer, what’s a computer engineer, and so on, we should focus on a single coordinated message: electrical engineers do this, and this affects people’s lives.”

Karen Panetta, an electrical engineering professor at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., and editor in chief of IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine , has found a way of doing just that. She created the organization Nerd Girls, which helps women students develop projects involving energy and the environment. ”It works because the young women can immediately understand the importance of what they’re doing,” she says. ”Bringing renewable energy to places like an island or an emerging country are achievements that everyone can be proud of.”

”While many areas within EE make clearly positive contributions to society, we don’t market that aspect of our field well enough,” says Mary Baker, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock. ”It is up to us to show that electrical engineering does indeed have a more human side.” Baker and her colleagues have organized EE-specific summer camps for female high school juniors as well as summer internships for community college and high school students that focus on biomedical and other topics known to appeal to women.

MIT has a similar program. Its Women’s Technology Program in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science holds summer courses for high school girls with team-based projects and hands-on classes taught by female MIT students.

Other programs try to establish a more direct and durable connection between young women and EE professionals. MentorNet and MAGIC (More Active Girls in Computing) help connect high school girls with women who have careers in technology. And STAR (Student-Teacher and Research Engineer/Scientist), created by the IEEE Women in Engineering program, promotes involvement of IEEE members with high school teachers and students.

Will female participation in electrical engineering ever equal that of disciplines like chemical and environmental engineering? One thing is certain: the first step is to remove that glaring gender disparity in the EE classroom.

To Probe Further

For more statistics and resources on women in engineering, see http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/dec08/women [to come].

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