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.