I’m an engineer with two daughters. While the oldest one is pursuing a college degree in in fashion and business, the other one is still figuring out what she wants to do in her career. One possibility is law. However, I asked myself what I could tell her to influence her to go to engineering school instead.
I have told her that any career she chooses would be acceptable, but I would feel better if she were to pick engineering and work for a large company. Engineering is everywhere; wherever you look you will see engineering’s positive impact on humanity. Engineering is a great way to give back to the community, and a great place for innovative thinkers. You get to work as part of a team with all kinds of people inside and outside the field. As an engineer, your abilities are put into practice in ways you never projected, and you will receive a lot of respect and be paid well.
Finally, I told her to imagine how life would be like without engineers. Engineers avert disasters and protect the world. Be part of that and create a change I said. After all this encouragement and advice, my daughter’s answer was a resounding NO. She said most of her friends don’t want to be engineers. And they were never told in school about opportunities in engineering so they never considered it. I blame the profession’s reputation. Engineering is often thought of as a job choice for men.
Even though women have made great strides in increasing their numbers in tech jobs in the last few years, engineering jobs are still generally held by men. Studies show the number of women in engineering is still low compared to men, and the percentage of women earning engineering degrees is less than 20 percent. Many women have left engineering to do something entirely different.
Based on this information, I started asking myself what can we as engineers do to make a better environment for female engineers? There’s no reason why women should not work in engineering, and no real barriers except in the minds of some girls, parents, and teachers that this is a “man’s” profession. When people think about engineering, they often think about hard hats, steel beams, winches, long hours, relocation every few years, and instability. There is a misunderstanding that engineering involves tedious or hard physical labor suitable for men only.
Some of the other misperceptions I found from talking to other young girls and from my own research are that some girls did not feel they had the skills to be engineers. Either they were not good at math or science, or didn’t feel they were smart enough. Some of them said they hadn’t considered an engineering career because they weren’t given sufficient information about the profession at school. However, not receiving encouragement in school shouldn’t be a reason for not pursuing what can be a very dynamic, thrilling, and productive profession.
Another reason given was a lack of female mentors. This absence of a role model makes it harder to motivate the next generation of young women to enter the profession. Parents also sometimes act as obstructions against the career choice. Instead of encouraging their daughters to enter this successful field, they put up a gender barriers.
But take Edith Clarke, the first female electrical engineer. She proved that women could be just as successful as men in the field, and she inspired other women to become engineers too. In fact, in 1948 she was the first woman to become an AIEE Fellow, a predecessor of IEEE. Born on a farm, and an orphan at a young age after her parents died, she chose to turn her attention to math and physics and changed the course of her life. She is a pioneer in the industry.
As engineers and parents, we should all be calling for collaboration among employers, parents, schools, and teachers to address gender barriers and enhance technical education for girls in middle and high schools. We should also ask schools to bring in more female engineers to share their experiences with the next generation. It should be our goal and duty to make a place for women in engineering.
As a past member for many years of the IET, an engineering association in the United Kingdom, I was inspired by Naomi Climer, the organization’s first female president in its 144-year history. She said, “The lack of gender diversity in engineering means that the time is now right to encourage employers to ensure they employ more female engineers”.
I’d like to end with a quote from Edith Clarke: “There is no demand for women engineers, as such, as there are for women doctors; but there's always a demand for anyone who can do a good piece of work.”
Qusi Alqarqaz is an IEEE senior member who works as an electrical engineering designer and consultant. You can find more posts by him on his blog.
This article is part of our April 2016 special report on women in engineering.