Think of an engineer in business. Does a woman come to mind? Probably not. There’s a reason for that. Despite efforts to bring more women into the fields of engineering, men continue to outnumber women in engineering fields around the world. Women make up roughly 10 percent of engineers, according to the 2009 Global Women in Engineering survey by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology. You shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of women in engineering. I wasn’t. But the reasons given why there are so few women really surprised me. Not only was I surprised. I also think the explanations are wrong. How do I know? I’m one of those women who studied engineering.
Here’s the first reason given. Critics say that a big reason why women avoid studying engineering is that there are negative stereotypes of engineers. It’s thought that engineers are nerds. Did Dr. Judith Resnick strike you as a nerd? She was a PhD in Electrical Engineering. You may remember her as a mission specialist on the doomed Challenger space flight. You may not know that she was also an accomplished musician and she was considered to be a gourmet cook. That’s hardly a nerd.
Yes, I know that some “techie” types have an aversion to water (think showers here) and are more comfortable with things instead of people. I’m not talking about them. Most engineers are the quiet thoughtful type who would never think about bragging about the work that they do. Just because they’re quiet thoughtful people, does that make them nerds? I don’t think so. Just because you don’t know how interesting someone is doesn’t make them a nerd.
The reputation of engineering being uncool is not deserved. Do you think your iPod is uncool? Next time you enjoy your iPod, just remember that a bunch of engineers developed it. Engineers do lots of cool things. Every electronic tool that’s been developed had at least a few engineers behind its development.
I know you’re thinking that their tools are cool, but they’re not. Next time you want to have a conversation–a really meaningful one– which would you really want to do? Do you really care about who Lindsay Lohan is dating or maybe you could learn how the iPod came about? I’m thinking it would be more interesting to hear about the iPod and the creativity behind its development. If you agree, you would have to talk to an engineer.
Then there’s the argument that working as an engineer is a difficult balancing act with work and family obligations. Hello? Try working at any professional job today and having a family. People work longer and harder everywhere and there’s less time for everything. Engineers are no different. Engineers know how to hire babysitters, nannies and look for after school care just as doctors, lawyers and other working women do.
No, I don’t think any of these reasons are the real reasons why women aren’t studying engineering. I’m thinking that bright young women don’t know enough about the jobs you can do as an engineer. My daughter is one example. She studied math as an undergraduate. She was accepted and planning on going to medical school. Then she was recruited to work as a software developer. She loves her work! As a result she’s getting a masters in computer science which is considered part of the engineering degrees. Did she know that’s what she would love? No. She passed on going to medical school because of all the fun she was having working as a software developer. Lest you think she’s a nerd, she’s a nationally ranked tennis player and all-around neat gal. I’m unbiased of course.