Balancing the Equation
New programs try to narrow the engineering gender gap
The engineering industry is seeing little progress in bringing more women to its ranks.
Even after decades of efforts to increase female representation at engineering firms, advocates still struggle to make progress. As engineering firms nationwide race to find talented candidates to fill surging staff demands, few are encountering women interested in entering the field.
With construction activity moving along at historically high levels in many regions of the United States, many company executives are scrambling to attract qualified and diverse engineers.
“When I graduated from college in 1978, there were around 10% women in the civil engineering field,” says Pat Galloway, chief executive officer and chief financial officer of the Nielsen-Wurster Group in Princeton, N.J. “Thirty years later, it’s virtually the same.”
What needs to be done to increase the number of women engineers in the industry?
“Being an engineer is a great profession for a woman. What we need to do is encourage women who have a strong math and science background to look into engineering and to make them aware of the opportunities this industry can provide.”
Patricia Flood, senior consultant, Write Water Engineering
“There are only a couple of ways to get women to look to engineering as a job possibility the main one being to encourage them at an early age to become involved in things that are not traditionally thought of as the world of women, that being math and science. There is a fair amount of support from industry organizations to foster that encouragement, but it is a fairly lengthy process to get young people to get to the point to make the decision to become involved in engineering.”
Sarah Clarke, senior project manager, HDR
“The main issue is that engineers have never done a good job of explaining to the public what it is that we do. And, that maybe why women don’t understand what they could get from being an engineer. In essence, what we really do is solve problems and with that comes a lot of things that I think could appeal to young girls.”
Lauren Evans, Pinyon Environmental Engineering Resources
Galloway adds that while women are making their way through the senior ranks of some engineering firms, overall interest in the field among women remains stagnant. “It’s been a frustrating atmosphere,” she says. “There has been little progress in the overall work force.”
The stalled movement isn’t caused by lack of potential. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that standardized math test scores among middle school girls track closely to boys. Yet while 16% of high school junior boys list engineering as their intended college major, only 2% of junior girls plan to study engineering in college, according to College Board data.
Similarly, the Higher Education Research Institute notes that about 3% of women planned to enter engineering in 2004, a proportion that has remained virtually unchanged since 1990.
Galloway, who was elected the first woman president of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2004, says although women have statistically proven they can compete on par with men in terms of their abilities, women are generally less interested in entering the field than men.
Engineer Your Life
This month, the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project, a coalition of industry groups organized through the American Association of Engineering Societies, hopes to unlock the mystery. A new initiative dubbed “Engineer Your Life” set for launch Feb. 17-23 in conjunction with Engineers Week 2008 aims to help more high school girls realize how engineering can fit within their career goals.
The coalition, which formed in 2004, conducted extensive research with high school girls about their future professional goals. Among the responses, researchers found that girls typically said they want to make an impact with their profession, enjoy what they do, earn a living, have a good working environment and some flexibility.
“When we got responses that girls want to do something that helps people, we realized that the engineering field is not doing the kind of public relations it should relative to what engineering is really all about,” Galloway says.
The result is “Engineer Your Life,” which aims to provide teachers and school counselors with training aids they can use to drive home such themes as “change the world,” “make a difference,” “be creative” and “love your work and live your life, too.”
“The message is different from the ones we’ve been giving,” says Diane Matt, executive director of Denver-based Women in Engineering Program Advocates Network. “The message has been to tell them, ‘You need to be good at math and science, and it will be hard, but you can do it.’ It turns out the message that kids respond to is more along the lines of ‘Dreams need doing.’”
Beth Holloway, director of the Women in Engineering program at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., says the message reflects a realization that outreach and recruiting efforts for future engineers need to put greater emphasis on women-specific goals and strengths.
When Purdue’s Women in Engineering program began in 1969, the philosophy was that simply letting women know they were accepted in the field would draw them to engineering, Holloway says. From there, the emphasis shifted toward trying to “fix” women, by teaching them to be more like men in the workplace, she adds.
“At some point, there were some enlightened people who raised the issue of, ‘Why do we think something’s wrong with women?’” Holloway says. “Really there’s something wrong with a culture that doesn’t allow women to bring their unique gifts, talents and perspectives in a way that is embraced by everyone.”
One area where advocates are making headway is in creating role models within the engineering field. The last two deans of Purdue’s College of Engineering have been women, the only two in its history. In 2006 the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project promoted the accomplishments of women in the field with its book, Changing Our World: True Stories of Women Engineers.
Firms are also making a concerted effort to promote talented women to visible positions. CH2M Hill, Englewood, Colo., boasts that nearly 30% of its management staff is women, including several board members.
Lee McIntyre, president of CH2M-Hill, says it’s smart business to show that his firm is diverse.
“If anyone in the engineering business doesn’t think having women in their management is important, then they are ignoring a whole pool of talent,” he adds. “How could you possibly expand and continue to do your work otherwise? It’s not a choice to be thoughtful, understanding and supportive of bringing women in and retaining them it’s the business of parity.”
McIntyre says his firm encourages women to take on challenging projects, and that will help move more women into the upper ranks.
“Down the road, when people start thinking about giving promotions, if there are no challenging jobs on someone’s resume, they will get passed over,” he says. “We encourage managers to put women on challenging jobs because in the long run, it makes them much more promotable.”
The company has also a Women’s Leadership Summit to help create a network among the global company’s women executives. Now in its third year, the summit is reaching out to employees with eight to 16 years of experience to offer them mentoring.
“We want the next generation of women to learn from our experiences and how to use our feminine strengths,” says Joan Miller, senior vice president at CH2M-Hill.
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