IEEE Women in Engineering Group’s Efforts Ramp Up

The focus on attracting more women to engineering continues

7 October 2011
WIE Photo: iStockphoto

For the past few weeks, the IEEE Women in Engineering group has picked up the pace on promoting its cause—to help close the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math fields—in various media outlets and on its Facebook page. The results of a poll running on that page that asked what stereotypes female professionals struggle with found the No. 1 problem is “a lack of promotion opportunities or appointments.” And when asked how they can move past those stereotypes, comments included standing up for yourself, having more confidence, keeping on top of your technical skills, and above all—never giving up.

The topic of attracting more women to engineering is one that also seems to generate a lot of controversy. Each time The Institute has written about the subject, we’ve received letters saying that getting more females to join the field doesn’t matter, or that it’s a waste of time [we’ve also received letters of support]. Other letters have been downright angry.

Despite the occasional negativity, WIE continues its outreach efforts. A news release quoting WIE members from around the world discussing their thoughts on the gender gap has made its way onto dozens of websites such as ABC 13’s site. “In developed countries like Japan, the U.S., and Australia, traditional thinking about women’s roles is still quite predominant and it deters women from studying engineering,” said Takako Hashimoto in the release. Hashimoto is IEEE Region 10 WIE coordinator and associate professor of computer science at Chiba University of Commerce in Japan.

What’s interesting is how this perspective differs in other parts of the world. Ramalatha Marimuthu, this year’s WIE chair, says that in India the problem isn’t about attracting women to engineering—it’s about keeping them there. “Young women do get into engineering, though they often leave the profession as they have children,” she says. “In India, families are supportive of women taking up engineering as a profession. Engineering colleges, especially women’s colleges in India, are up and coming in a big way.” But why do more female engineers leave the workforce once they have kids than other professionals? Don’t doctors, lawyers, and others work similarly long hours? What is it about engineering that makes it more difficult to balance family and work?

On the WIE Facebook page, one member has seen a big difference in the gender gap after moving to a new country. “I currently work in Portugal, and to my surprise and amazement, nearly 60 percent of the engineers and geoscientists are women!” she writes. “…a significant difference from North America after [working] 14 years in the oil and gas industry.”

Despite differing viewpoints, one thing is clear: Many people are interested in the subject of women in engineering. A new IEEE Computer Society Press book Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing tells the stories of female programmers, systems analysts, managers, and IT executives who were prevalent in the workplace in the 1960s and ‘70s. The book examines why the computing field has since seen a decline in the number of women. And a recent article in the International Business Times explored why there are so few female tech CEOs. The article points out that about 90 percent of IEEE members in 2010 were male, “despite years of supporting technical education for women.”

As long as that gap remains, there will always be pioneers, like IEEE Fellow Karen Panetta, working to make a difference. We’ve written about Panetta’s outreach efforts, including her work on the Nerd Girls program, which she started in 1996 at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., to help dispel geeky stereotypes of engineering.

So why does the gender gap remain? Do you think it matters? Share your thoughts below.

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