Looking at the Gender Gap

Members offer advice on how to close the gender gap in engineering

8 March 2010
wie Image: Bonnie Nani

Although outreach efforts to bring more women into engineering are abundant, a large gender gap still exists. Men continue to outnumber women in engineering fields around the world, with women making 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.

That percentage has remained relatively constant for the past few years. The survey asked engineers about the gender gap, and 79 percent of respondents agreed that women are underrepresented in engineering, though 38 percent said the gap doesn’t matter.

Why do women continue to remain underrepresented? Does it really matter? And what can be done to close the gap? The Institute asked four IEEE members with experience on the issue to weigh in.

IEEE Fellow Eve Riskin is a professor of electrical engineering and an associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Washington’s College of Engineering, in Seattle.

Ramalatha Marimuthu, an IEEE senior member, is head of the electronics and communication engineering department at the Anna University Karpaga Vinayaga College of Engineering and Technology, in Chennai, India.

IEEE Fellow Alice Parker is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles. And IEEE Fellow Karen Panetta chaired the Women in Engineering (WIE) Committee in 2009 and is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass.

Contributing heavily to the gender gap are unappealing stereotypes of engineers and a difficult balancing act with work and family obligations, the four IEEE members agree.

Women are attracted to careers that help society, and the idea that engineering is a purely technical field of no benefit to humanity pushes them away, says Riskin. “They aren’t seeing the connection of how engineers can change the world,” she says.

Parker agrees. “I believe many women aren’t attracted to engineering because the traditional approaches to the field lack immersion in its social benefits,” she says.

Certain engineering fields, such as electrical and mechanical engineering, exhibit an even wider gender gap because of a negative stigma, according to Panetta.

“What are electrical and mechanical engineers best known for by the general public? As stiffs with no personality and no social life,” she says. “Who wants to pursue a career having that stigma? That’s why the chemical and biomedical engineering fields are by far the most popular for women, who also understand the social mission of these fields is to help individuals by using technology to cure diseases or develop assistive technologies.”

Balancing family and the heavy workload of engineering is a problem for women because “taking care of family has always been considered the woman’s responsibility,” Marimuthu says. “When a woman passionately wants to pursue a career, she typically doesn’t receive enough support from her family.”

She notes, too, that although women enter other demanding fields such as medicine and law in high numbers, those jobs often offer them greater flexibility than engineering does. “Careers like law or medicine give women more opportunities to work part-time to balance family demands,” she says. “But engineers won’t find many openings for part-time jobs.”

Does it matter whether women enter engineering fields? Riskin says the answer is in the numbers. “If you reduce the pool of engineers by not including more women, you’ve probably ruled out some talented people,” she says. “Mathematically, if you’re optimizing over a set, the larger the set, the better the solution.”

Parker says more progress would be made in areas of benefit to humanity if women entered engineering in higher numbers. “I’m seeing an increased focus on solving socially relevant problems with engineering, coming from both men and women,” she says. “I think that’s wonderful, and if bringing more women into the field moves engineering even further in this direction, that would be a very good thing.”

To attract more women to engineering, the four IEEE members say it’s important to reach out to them while they’re still young and dispel negative stereotypes.

In part to show girls that engineering is an attractive career choice, Panetta started the Nerd Girls program at Tufts in 1996. About 14 engineering undergrads each year work on socially conscious projects such as environmental cleanup, green energy, and improving mobility for the disabled [see Member Profile, The Institute, December 2008].

“Nerd Girls attacks the negative stereotypes of female engineers and shows youngsters how normal, well-rounded young women like them can change the world through science and engineering, even if they’re not the best at math and science,” she says.

Marimuthu, who in 2006 formed the IEEE Madras (Chennai) Section’s WIE group, reaches out to girls in rural villages to show them how engineers can make a difference. She started the Sangamam Project: Transferring Technology to Rural Areas. Marimuthu enlists her school’s IEEE student branch to visit rural villages and teach girls and young women about engineering through presentations, contests, and hands-on projects. “Science and technology competitions and projects are successful at attracting more girls to the engineering field,” she says.

Reaching out to girls is also the strategy behind Riskin’s outreach project, the University of Washington Women’s Initiative. Female engineering students try to dispel stereotypes by making presentations to girls in middle and high schools, showing them how engineering is relevant to people’s lives. Riskin’s students also use hands-on projects to show that engineering can be fun.

“Students in our outreach program say that if you want to help a person, become a doctor,” Riskin says. “But if you want to save the world, become an engineer. If women understood that, more would become engineers.”

Parker emphasizes that it’s essential to connect with prospective female engineers when they’re young. Wait too long and it might be too late.

“It’s important to reach them in middle school because in high school, attitudes and preferences about career choices are already becoming entrenched, and it becomes more difficult to change their minds,” she says.

FOR MORE INFORMATION on the IEEE WIE program, visit http://www.ieee.org/women

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