Where Are America’s Women Engineers?

Although women have made great strides in formerly male-dominated professions in the last few decades, engineering remains one of the occupations where female employees are severely underrepresented. Why is the gender divide still so wide in technical fields?

According to a recent report from the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, female engineers represent only about 14 percent of the total engineering workforce. More troubling is that the proportion of female engineers appears to be dropping even further.

From 2004 to 2009, the number of women graduating from engineering programs fell by 5.2 percent and were far below the levels in the 1970s and 1980s. In 2009, the percentage of undergraduate degrees from engineering schools earned by women was 17.8 percent, a 15-year low, according to the American Society of Engineering Education. Among the nearly 28,000 members of the Society of Automotive Engineers, only 1,500 – about 5 percent — are women.

The number of women in engineering programs varies by school and sub-discipline. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has the highest ratio of female-to-male engineering graduates: about 42 percent of the graduating class of 2010 were women. The same year, the University of Illinois in Urbana’s engineering program had one of the lowest rates, with only 15 percent female graduates.

In engineering specialties, women tend to be better represented in disciplines such as biomedical and environmental engineering than computer science.

“Women are drawn to fields where the social relevance is high,” said C. Dian Matt, executive director of the Women in Engineering ProActive Network.

A study by Intel asked teenagers of both sexes to read a series of statements about engineering. The teens were then asked if those statements made them more likely or less likely to consider a career in the field. One of the top “more likely” statements for teenage girls was about fixing global social problems, such as bringing clean water solutions to communities in Africa.

So why aren’t more women choosing engineering education and careers? It’s not due to a lack of ability. Female graduates of engineering programs tend to have grades as good as or better than those of male graduates. While a few decades ago, girls did not typically take the advanced math and physics classes in high school that were a prerequisite for entrance into college engineering programs, this is no longer the case, and the gap between males and females in math classes has disappeared.

Instead, the reasons seem largely social. Perceptions of engineering as a male domain may be one factor. There is also a misconception that engineering involves tedious or manual labor. Sexism may be a factor as well, in addition to a dearth of female engineering role models and a lack of encouragement from parents, teachers, and school counselors.

More women enter engineering programs than finish (the same is true of men, though not at quite the same rate). Even women who graduate from engineering schools frequently discontinue working in the profession, often citing overt or covert sexism and patronizing attitudes from male colleagues and bosses.

“The real challenges for reaching out to young women is to get over the stereotype that this isn’t something girls do and then to help them build their confidence,” Betty Shanahan, executive director of the Society of Women Engineers, told the Washington Post.

The low numbers of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields isn’t unique to the U.S. either. Numbers are similarly low in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

However, many Asian nations have a better record of producing female engineers: in China, 40 percent of engineers are female, and the number of female engineering graduates in India has doubled in recent years. Over the same period, the number of female engineers in North America has dropped. The U.S. is also behind 13 Muslim countries in the percentage of women graduating with STEM degrees, including Bahrain, Brunei, Lebanon, Qatar, Turkey, and Morocco.

The drop in female engineers may be part of a broader decline in STEM education in the U.S. The share of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in STEM fields to men or women peaked at 24 percent in 1985. By 2009, the number had fallen to 18 percent. This worries many STEM advocates in both government and private industry.

The U.S., once a global powerhouse in science, innovation, and engineering, seems to be losing students, losing workers, and losing interest, which doesn’t bode well for the nation’s future as a scientific leader.



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  • Mike Huffman
    February 19, 2013

    Part of the answer may lie in the way men’s and women’s brains are “wired.” As I heard it explained, a long time ago, in a place far far away…: “If you say to a woman ‘2014 Corvette,’ in her mind she will see a picture of a Corvette. But if you say the same thing to a man, he, in his mind, can get into the car, shut the door, start the engine, put the transmission in gear, and drive the car away.” This Corvette example is a must for anyone who will be an engineer. As I understand it, only about 20 percent of women are so equipped while about 80 percent of men are. This in no way makes the man superior to the woman, nor does it make the woman inferior to the man. It just simply illustrates that men’s and women’s brains are wired differently.

    • anonymous
      February 19, 2013

      What are your sources for this information? I have serious doubts about your sources.

    • February 20, 2013

      Mike, The answer is obvious and Tracey is giving you the answer.
      If you will notice, Tracey’s answer sounds very well informed when compared to our present day paradigms, themes, examples, etc.
      The only problem is that Tracey is actually asking a question and the question seeks a scapegoat. And we know what / who is used as the typical scapegoat while denying the obvious. And yes, I am politically incorrect.
      Here is a hint: Intellectual honesty tells us that the ability to add 2+2 and obtain a solution is not gender related. Yet, this article, Tracey, and a certain Supreme Court Justice all seek a gender specific solution.

      • Tracey Schelmetic
        February 20, 2013

        Michael: You would appear to be placing issues of your own making into places they were never meant to be.

  • Tracey Schelmetic
    February 19, 2013

    Mike: While there may be some evidence of differences in spatial ability between men and women in general, it doesn’t explain why the number of women engineers have dropped dramatically since the 70s and 80s, and the fact that in the former Soviet Union, almost half of engineering graduates were women. The figure is about 40 percent in China today. Clearly, there is something about engineering that is putting off women from a cultural or social perspective in the U.S.

    • Mike Huffman
      February 20, 2013

      Tracey: I believe the gender disparity in the engineering field in the US vs. Russia and China can easily be accounted for via differences in education philosophy. Russia and China both exploit their education systems for the betterment of the state while the US system is basically quagmired in a social bent to make us all one big happy family. The former system takes the brightest/best students and allows them soar. The latter is more interested in overall test scores and attracting federal monies – to the detriment of the more capable students. The brightest and best are held back in a failed attempt to bring the disadvantaged to a higher plane. While I am not debating the ethics of the two very different approaches to education, I do believe it is entirely possible that the end product of the “Communist” approach easily absorbs and produces its numbers from, and without discrediting, the “20/80 rule.”

      • February 20, 2013

        Mike: You may be onto something there. It’s also telling that in other countries, students with abilities in STEM are identified earlier and moved to coursework that allows these abilities to flourish. U.S. students usually follow a uniform curriculum, regardless of individual strengths and abilities, and lately, it doesn’t include much science, since only math and reading are generally tested to meet federal and state requirements.

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