Last year when then Harvard University president Lawrence
H. Summers commented that "innate differences" between men and women might help explain the lack of top-level female professionals in science and engineering, it sparked a nationwide debate on the numbers and status of women in those fields.
Here, five industry experts share their views on the challenges and opportunities facing women in engineering today. They also offer career advice for working members of the profession as well as for students who might be considering a career in engineering for themselves.
Is engineering still a good career path for women?
Mary Ellen Randall: Engineering is an excellent career choice for women. It offers lots of potential and opportunities. Engineers solve many problems of social significance, such as providing people with water and power, enabling us to do business on the Internet, changing how we communicate, developing new medical devices, or coming up with ways to watch your baby sleep at daycare. Combine that with the fact that women tend to do well in the profession, and you have all the ingredients for a great career.
Kate Colborn: The fact that there aren't very many women EEs gives women extra visibility, which is generally a plus if you're trying to make your mark in a corporate situation. On the other hand, most who've been around for a few years have had some wince-worthy moments. For example, one senior engineer I know was asked to take notes at a product meeting where she was actually the representative from the engineering department. In another case, a female project manager was asked when her boss was going to arrive. But many corporations are working hard to move technical women into the top levels of their companies. And nearly all the women who've made it into top tech positions—I think of Jo Cheng and Scottie Ginn of IBM—put a lot of energy into mentoring younger women engineers.
Nathan E. Bell: Regardless of whether women are indeed pursuing careers in engineering, it is a good career path for them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2005 1.84 million individuals were employed as engineers in the U.S. Such a large labor force means that there are jobs available in every sector of the economy and in every geographic-location in the U.S. In terms of salary potential, engineering occupations pay the highest starting salaries for individuals with bachelor's degrees. For example, this summer the average starting salary offer made to computer engineering graduates was $53,651. For chemical engineering graduates, it was $56,335. And for electrical engineering graduates, it was $53,552. In comparison, the average starting salary offer to sociology graduates was just $30,944 and to English majors it was just $30,906.
Jude Garzolini: Women look for careers where they can have a positive impact. There are few aspects in modern life that are not positively impacted by engineers. In fact, much of our quality of life is due to advances in engineering. Engineering is practiced in a wide range of disciplines and work environments, offering options for women to establish careers that fit their personal goals. Also, since engineering develops problem-solving skills, it is also a platform for success in many other fields— such as business, academia, medicine, law, and finance.
Why have so few women taken up engineering as a career?
Kate Colborn: Thirty years ago, women were actively steered away from engineering careers. That means there are few role models for young women who want both career and family. Company attention to the needs of new mothers—such as lactation rooms, flex-time, on-site child care, drop-in emergency care, subsidies for daycare expenses—can help, but it's still a problem as women move up the ladder.
Mary Ellen Randall: It stems back to some social issues. Many types of engineering disciplines have women's participation at less than 20%, so young girls do not see many women engineer role models. Also, younger students may not have a good idea of what an engineer does. When women get to the high school and college levels, a scarcity of women peers makes it a bit more difficult to break into study groups and to fully participate in activities outside the classroom.
C. Diane Matt: Children are affected by the stereotypes in our society, which assume that boys are better suited to pursue technology and engineering. In response, girls often deselect themselves from educational paths that would prepare them for engineering. And girls tend to want to understand the social impact of their chosen field, and we haven't done the best job of educating the general public of the impact of engineering on the quality of our lives. Plus, during their higher education experience, female students often receive messages—some intentional, others not—that they do not belong. The cumulative effect during four or more years of rigorous study can cause some students to question whether engineering fits their aspirations.
Looking forward, would you recommend engineering as a
career path to women?
Jude Garzolini: Engineering is an outstanding career path for women. The research from the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project identified that the career motivators for high school girls align with the realities of engineering careers. Engineering is about creativity, design, and innovation. Both the overall demand for people with technical expertise and the value placed on diversity in engineering offer women a lucrative and rewarding career.
Kate Colborn: Electrical and electronics engineering and its applications impact all corners of modern life. A new study from the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology projects that in the next 10 years, there will be about 32,000 more jobs for EEs alone than there were in 2004.
What career advice do you have for women currently working
in engineering? What about students who are considering the profession?
Mary Ellen Randall: Stay with it! Women who work in this industry tend to do very well. Build a strong network of women and men who will help and support you. Relationships will add to your success. Be sure to find good mentors and utilize them to help you understand corporate culture, keep you up to date on what is happening in the workplace, as a sounding board for putting ideas into practice, and to make introductions for you and open doors.
Kate Colborn: For professionals: network, network, network. For those willing to invest the time and energy, there are lots of avenues and many rewards. Being active in SWE or another professional society, or in company networking and diversity groups, gives women a chance to practice and demonstrate leadership skills. It can also make women techies visible to management in ways that their day-to-day jobs don't. From my observations of the successful women engineers I interview, involvement beyond the narrow requirements of their jobs is the most consistent similarity. Students should do everything they can to land real-world internships. Internships are essential on a resume and are also a great way to find out if engineering is the right career choice. Students can connect with campus SWE chapters or take advantage of "tech camp" programs and job-shadow days to get a sense of what the engineering profession involves. Or check out MentorNet.org to find an online connection with a working female engineer.
C. Diane Matt: Many books and Web sites are available for girls interested in engineering careers or just interested in learning more about engineering. The National Engineers Week (NEW) Girl Day website has a great list: www.eweek.org/site/News/Eweek/girlsday_resources.shtml. I would also encourage interested students to find a mentor, either a woman or a man, who knows about engineering, who can answer their questions, and who they can talk to about their interests and concerns.