As a woman engineer, I have worked for over 25 years to encourage more girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). I had to stifle my screams and overcome my first inclination to label both Larry Summers and Bob Pease as Neanderthals (or worse) after reading Mr. Pease's column in the April 14 issue of Electronic Design. Instead, I decided to apply my analytical reasoning skills (a highly desirable aptitude for pursuing an engineering career) to Mr. Pease's arguments to see if there was any "there" there.
I found that intrinsic aptitude differences between the sexes are not that significant. The scholarly research on the whole question of nature versus nurture has found that gender differences on science and math tests are small and decreasing and that a significant number of complex and not well understood factors, including expectations, influence performance.1 If genetic and intrinsic aptitude explained why women still constitute such a small percentage of the STEM workforce, how does one explain the increase in female, undergraduate students studying engineering in the U.S.? In 1970, 0.3% of the degrees awarded nationwide went to women. Now women earn almost 20% of the engineering degrees. This is an increase in magnitude of over 60 times. Surely women haven't improved their quantitative skills by this magnitude just in the last 30 years. Factors other than aptitude must account for this result.2
The National Academy of Engineering's (NAE) treatise, The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century, commented on the rapid pace of technological change. The engineering profession will be driven in the next 15 years, this report predicts, by breakthrough technologies including biotechnology, logistics, high-performance computing, materials science and photonics, and nanotechnology. To function in this quickly evolving world, future engineers must not only possess critical thinking skills but also strong analytical skills, practical ingenuity, and creativity and innovation. The engineer of the future also has to be dynamic, agile, resilient, and flexible; communicate well to diverse, global audiences; be able to master business and management principles; understand and practice leadership principles; hold high ethical standards; possess a strong sense of professionalism; and be a lifelong learner. What are the skill levels of the average male for these characteristics?
These skills somewhat parallel the aptitudes that Mr. Pease alludes to in his article — structural visualization, analytical reasoning, memory for design, and mathematical ability. But much like veterinary medicine, engineering is changing as technology and the information age change our world. Veterinarians no longer need to be big, strong men who handle farm animals. And engineers no longer require a primary aptitude of structural visualization, as did the white males who constituted almost the entire engineering workforce until the mid-1980s and still constitute the vast majority of engineers. In fact, structural visualization is not a characteristic that the NAE identifies as an important skill for the engineer of 2020. Most engineering disciplines no longer even require a drafting class like the one I took in the mid-1970s when I was in college. The advent of the PC and computer programs that produce three-dimensional images changed that.
Women excel in many skills that the NAE projects the engineers of 2020 will require. Women are multitaskers, networkers, communicators, project managers, and problem solvers. Women see things differently than men. Women would not have designed the early versions of VCRs that no one could program. Women would not design a PDA specifically or primarily to fit in a man's breast pocket. Plus, women would not design car airbags that are likely to seriously injure or kill people when it deploys. But 30 women were involved in the design of the Ford Windstar. This very popular van won the five-star governmental award (the highest) for frontal crash tests. In addition, it included such features as square cup holders designed for juice boxes and a reverse sensing system that beeped to warn backing-up drivers of objects in the way. It also had sliding doors on both sides that could be opened by clicks on the key fob.3 Women think differently.
It doesn't make sense to me to purposely or unintentionally discourage half of the population from pursuing a STEM career, especially when this type of career provides such value for the world's population and can be so satisfying. We are discouraging the female half of the population. One of my coworker's daughters was having trouble with first grade math in a major metropolitan-area public school. This girl's teacher and principal both told her parents, "Don't worry. It isn't important for little girls to do math." Many math- and science-phobic teachers and mothers think math and science are "hard" and thus teach their female students and daughters to avoid math and science. There are also those parents who choose only to pay for higher education for their sons and leave their daughters to pay for and obtain any higher education themselves. The discouragement results in girls who play dumb to be popular and then don't enroll in the advanced math and science tracks in eighth grade that will lead them to STEM careers.
The discouragement continues in the STEM workplace. Here, women who stay in STEM careers do so by battling past or learning to ignore the small insults that occur regularly. (You're pretty good for a woman engineer, you look like a woman engineer, you're pretty smart for a girl, what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?) Women even learn to let the large insults that result in a hostile environment slide (being choked on the job site by a client, having a coworker throw a refractory brick at you).
If Larry Summers truly wanted to provoke discussion on the topic of the paucity of women in the STEM workforce, he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The bottom line, however, is that the global economy needs women in STEM careers, and it needs to tap their innovation and creativity and their different way of thinking. Certainly, if women can handle medical, accounting, and legal careers, then science, technology, engineering, and math are also jobs for women!
1. "Response to Lawrence Summers' Remarks on Women in Science," Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute, University of Wisconsin, Madison.
2. "Women in Science: What are the obstacles?"
3. "Windstar Moms Team Engineers Parent-Friendly Design"