If you are a young woman in the field of engineering the truth is, it can sometimes be very lonely. I have experienced the gender gap first hand and I can say that women make up for less than 20% of practicing engineers. The genesis of this wide gap is in the enrollment in undergraduate engineering courses at the university. Women make up of less than 15% of undergraduates enrolling for engineering courses. After graduation, not all the women engineers pursue a career in engineering hence the low numbers.
Truth be told, women are underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) but worse of them all is engineering. In the recent years there has been an increase in the number of women in other STEM careers except for engineering. The truth is in the numbers and numbers don’t lie. Still in engineering some branches have more women representation than others.
Why is there under representation of women in engineering?
There is a stereotype that has been going on that women are not good in mathematics or the sciences. If that were true, could we have seen the large number of women taking on biological sciences and chemistry as we have now? To prove just how much stereotypes continue to shape the world of Physics and engineering is the popular TV sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”. Two of the scientists on the show are women, Bernadette who has a very different shrill voice and Amy who has no sense of fashion and dates a very brilliant but child-like physicist Sheldon. As much as “The Big Bang Theory” is just a show, it portrays the world’s view of scientists and engineers. So what young girl would want to enter a field that is first largely populated by men like Sheldon and imagine herself being unstylish and socially clueless like Amy?
- Poor communication
I have heard it always being said engineers are poor communicators. Just this once I am going to agree. Engineers do very incredible works some that are even marvels of nature. If you have watched the series ‘Men who built America’ then you will understand what I mean. It is engineers who connected the America, hence the world. It is they who are designing and making prosthetic limbs and it is the same engineers who have discovered other safer and green forms of energy, solar, wind just to mention a few. But engineers do a very poor job making the public aware of just how important a job they do. It is this same poor communication skill that they have when it comes to reaching out to women and girls in engineering.
- Cultural Attitudes
The first community a child interacts with is the family. From childhood young girls are given dolls to play with while boys are given toy cars and motorcycles. As the children age, mothers teach their young girls to cook and fathers teach their young boys to repair bicycles. I don’t say there is anything wrong with teaching a young girl or boy to cook. (Ladies the way to a man’s heart is his stomach). Better still who said you cannot teach your girl both, repairing a bicycle and cooking. Such kinds of attitudes are witnessed even in the workplace. It is not uncommon to find women engineers seated in the office while their male counterparts are going to site, or to find very few or no women at all as heads of departments or managers. Some parents at home encourage their young girls to stay clear of STEM particularly engineering career and sit pretty and wait for a man to take care of them. Absurd you might think, but it happens. Young girls from a tender age are told math and sciences is not for them.
Picture courtesy of The Telegram: At the Solvay Conference on Physics in 1927, the only woman in attendance was Marie Curie (bottom row, third from left). Credit Mondadori Portfolio, via Getty Images
- Roadblocks to success
A lot of setbacks for women in engineering have come to light in the recent years as per studies conducted – fewer appointments to positions of leadership, fewer or no promotions and lower salaries. Women of child bearing years and who have decided to go ahead and have families and children of their own face an even harder time progressing in the engineering world. They are forced to choose between work and family something which most of their male counterparts don’t have to deal with. To make it in the world of engineering most women have to work and prove themselves ten times more than their male counterparts – working long and odd hours and this is why some women engineers opt not to have children because it is hard to envision children fitting into such a schedule.
At a young age, both girls and boys perform equally well in the sciences and mathematics. However along the way, the performance of girls starts to drop and by the time they are enrolling into campus, there are almost no women enrolling for the engineering courses. The only motivation to women pursuing engineering is mainly as a result of an encouragement from someone. Personally I did engineering because of encouragement from my family but along the way I almost dropped out, were it not for the encouragement I got from my brothers, and my determination to be one, I would not be an engineer now.
After enrolling for the engineering courses most women still drop out, or change courses. Who said getting a D or a supplementary in a course means you have failed? Who said repeating or even differing a year will not make you a great engineer?
The problem starts at the root that is in primary and high school level. It starts with the introduction of STEM courses to the students. The problem starts with not making the subjects appealing to young girls at a young age. Young girls need to see those role models to tell them it can be done and we have done it. Gone are the days when STEM was only a reserve for men. Where are the senior women engineers? Stand up and be counted. Mentor our young girls; tell them it can be done!
There is no better time to be born a woman than now. Opportunities are opening up for women like never seen before. Women are being empowered left, right and center. Young girls, women in general who are still in school, choose subjects to major in that provide the best opportunities. Many of these opportunities are available in technical fields.
After all is said and done, all that will ensure the increase in the number of women in engineering is culture. We need a cultural change – a culture that will teach women that it is okay for them to do the technical courses if they want, a culture that will teach women that doing engineering will not mean lack of a husband, a culture that will teach women that it is okay to be an engineer and be stylish and socially aware. It’s all in the mind.
Change of mind sets, change of culture!