Why So Few Women, Still?

Engineering's image problem is driving down enrollments

4 min read

"Why are there so few women in engineering?" queried the e-mail from a male engineering student. As I listed the reasons put forth by various experts, the thought occurred to me: "We've been working on this issue for 50 years now. If we really knew the answer, we would have solved it already." But the question still remains. Why aren't more women in the United States pursuing engineering education and careers, and what can we do about it?

In the United States, women constitute about 11 percent of the engineering workforce and earn about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, engineering has the lowest percentage of female graduates among all the professions—lower than medicine, law, economics, dentistry, architecture, and pharmacy. While entry-level doctors and lawyers earn more than the average first-year engineer does, they also typically endure workdays that are far more grueling. Meanwhile, other professionals, such as veterinarians and architects, earn less at entry level than engineers do. So why are women choosing these fields and not engineering?

I've read lots of research on this topic and conducted many recruitment and outreach programs over the years to try to interest more women in studying engineering, and the conclusion I've reached is what I'll call "Jill's Theory": engineering in the United States suffers from a huge image problem. Until the U.S. public understands the value engineers bring to everyday life, the field will continue to see low female enrollments, not to mention declining overall enrollments.

Well over half of the U.S. public, including almost three-quarters of women, don't know what engineers are or what engineers do, according to a Harris Poll on public perceptions of engineering. Conversely, from daily experience, people regularly interact with doctors, lawyers, dentists, and veterinarians and know the value those professionals bring to their lives.

It doesn't help matters that the most famous engineer in the United States is probably the cartoon character Dilbert—a hapless, dateless white male who labors away in Cubicle Row with dysfunctional co-workers and a clueless, if not malicious, boss. Not the sort of environment to which any of us aspire or to which, absent any other information, we would guide our children.

To the average citizen, engineering accomplishments are largely invisible and taken for granted, the main exception being when the lights go out or the phone stops working. Members of the public don't know how they get clean water, what it takes to run the Internet, or the engineering wizardry behind the automobile. People grumble about flight delays without appreciating the meteorological, communications, and navigation systems that protect them and enable them to travel safely.

It wasn't always this way. Jill's Theory posits that engineering's invisibility began with the environmental movement in the 1960s and reached a crescendo with Earth Day in 1970. Underlying people's environmental concerns was the feeling that all technology must be bad because some forms of technology caused air and water pollution. Sensitive to these concerns, companies stopped touting their engineering achievements, and technology went underground. Though engineering continued to power our economy, it and its practitioners lost their visibility and allure.

About the same time as Earth Day, U.S. women began going to college in record numbers. For the first time, they were free (or at least freer) to study any profession they wanted, and the professions they chose were the ones they knew about and saw value in. They didn't choose engineering. Among the small number of women who did enter engineering in the 1970s and early 1980s, most had a family member, usually a father, uncle, or brother, who was an engineer.

The solution to the recruitment problem, according to Jill's Theory, is that engineering needs to make itself visible again. Only by casting engineering's image in a positive light and showing its value to the world will we be able to recruit higher numbers to the field, including more women. It's been demonstrated that popular movies and TV shows like "L.A. Law" and "ER" helped boost the number of lawyers and health-care professionals. I can't think of any network shows that glamorize engineering.

Companies, technical societies, and nonprofit organizations must all work together to increase the visibility and promote the value of the profession. Some organizations are already working on the image problem, to be sure. The National Society of Professional Engineers, for example, has created a state-by-state sightseeing guide to engineering-related attractions. The Girl Scouts of the USA has launched a pro-science and technology campaign with the tag line "It's her future, do the math." A number of engineering societies, including the IEEE, sponsor the annual National Engineers Week. But much more must be done.

Individual engineers also have a role to play. They can visit their children's schools to talk about what they do, and they can lend their technical abilities to the community. Engineering role models, both male and female, need to be as prominent as possible. My friend Kristy Schloss runs a company that makes water treatment equipment. She regularly speaks to students about the tremendous satisfaction she derives from helping to clean up the world's water and thus boost people's life expectancies. My friend Sandra Scanlon's company wires schools, bringing computers and the Internet to thousands of children; in her spare time she organizes engineering outreach programs for middle-school girls.

The mainstream media rarely talk about engineering's accomplishments, at least not in proportion to its impact. The group Engineers Without Borders, for example, builds water conveying and filtration systems in poor communities around the world. Its efforts reduce disease and also allow village children (especially the girls) to go to school, because they no longer spend their days toting water. Now, this is engineering that makes a difference. And yet the group has received virtually no press attention.

I look forward to the day when top engineering and science prizes get the same level of coverage as the Academy Awards. Then we will know that the public has come to understand the value that engineers bring to society. I'll also bet that, by that time, the engineering field will have reached gender parity and will also be significantly ethnically diverse.

About the Author

Jill S. Tietjen (SM) is an engineer in Colorado who consults with electric utilities on power generation, transmission planning, and fuels. She is a past president of the Society of Women Engineers, of which she is a fellow life member.

To Probe Further

In 2001, the Girl Scout Research Institute published "The Girl Difference: Short-Circuiting the Myth of the Technophobic Girl." See the Web site at https://www.girlscouts.org/research/publications/reviews/girl_difference.asp.

The U.S. branch of Engineers Without Borders has a Web site at https://www.ewb-usa.org.

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