Despite years of effort to increase the ranks of women in the profession, female enrollment in engineering disciplines in U.S. universities remains modest. A news item from the Associated Press today reports that women received 18 percent of the 78 200 engineering degrees awarded in 2003-04, the latest years data is available from the U.S. Department of Education. That figure barely raises the mark recorded a decade earlier, the AP notes.
"One of the reasons has to do with the negative stereotype in engineering—the nerd drinking Cokes and eating Twinkies until 3 in the morning," William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering told the news agency. "The really important attribute of an engineer is creativity. Somehow that's not what high school girls are hearing about."
Mahera Philobos, director of Georgia Tech's Women in Engineering program and a civil and environmental engineering professor told the AP that she's frustrated by the low enrollment level of women in engineering programs but that she sees some rays of hope in the promise of fields such as biomedical engineering, where female candidates may feel they can help people more directly.
Sadly, the low numbers do not come from a lack of trying to attract women to the field. The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) offers awards, scholarships, professional development guidance, and classroom outreach programs to girls and young women, among other initiatives. In June, SWE will chair the Global Colloquium for Women in Engineering and Technology. Its mission is 'to promote gender equality, to increase professional skills and networking, and to empower women in decision-making to enable them to overcome inequity and poverty in their communities, to assist them in tearing down obstacles to their participation and advancement in engineering and technological careers, and aid them in achieving greater international collaboration.'
Our organization is the home to IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE), a professional society dedicated to much the same mission as SWE, with an emphasis on electrical and electronic engineering disciplines. WIE, too, offers awards, professional development, and student involvement efforts, such as the outstanding Student-Teacher and Research Engineer/Scientist (STAR) Program. 'This educational outreach program promotes involvement of IEEE members with local junior high and high schools to inspire a positive image of engineering careers,' its Web site states. 'Through a one-to-one interaction of society volunteers with a Teacher-Student Team, the goal of STAR is to create a technical support network for teachers and a mentoring program for the students.'
And there are many other positive programs in place to attract young women to the field of engineering. One fine example is Engineer Girl, sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering. Similar to SWE and WIE in its outreach, Engineer Girl emphasizes the rewards of careers in fields such as aerospace, medical, environmental, and communications engineering. 'By becoming an engineer, you can help solve problems that are important to society,' its Web site notes. 'You'll get to do cool stuff! ... Engineers will be involved in making all the wonders of the future a reality.'
While the goal of attaining substantial diversity in the profession of engineering remains frustratingly distant, the mission has not lost any of its importance over the years. Progress has been slow, but it has come in some measure. This should only reinforce the need for women and men to continue to reach out to girls and boys from minority backgrounds in our schools and communities to learn more about the work engineers do to improve the lives of others and help to make the world a better place. Think of it as a challenge. Then do something to solve the problem.