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The Gender Divide: Interview with Nita Patel, IEEE Women in Engineering Committee Chair

Oct. 6, 2014
A discussion of women in the engineering workplace: What are the opportunities and challenges?
Nita Patel is the IEEE Women In Engineering Committee Chair.

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I think there’s a component of awareness and stereotypes involved. Awareness in that many people don’t know what an engineer does or what it means to be an engineer. There are stereotypes and misconceptions about engineering. Also, there are stereotypes about the capabilities required. I think there’s a stereotype and bias that implies that girls are not capable of pursuing a STEM field. Yes, STEM can be hard, but so are many other fields of study and women are successful in them (e.g., doctors and lawyers).

In your view, what are some of the aspects of engineering that make it a particularly good career path for women?
I think it’s a great career choice because there is an incredible amount of flexibility and many opportunities. An engineering/technical background provides many opportunities in terms of type of industry (defense, medical, commercial, space...), type of career (full-time, part-time, independent, team-based...), and level of contribution (individual, team lead, executive...). The analytical and logical skills that you learn through a STEM degree can be applied to many different industries. Also, most engineering careers are project-based, so there is great flexibility in the hours you can set.

What are the biggest challenges women in engineering face?
I think people are aware of and control overt biases. There are still some subtle biases floating around. The perception that engineering is a man’s field is still prevalent, so this can be discouraging and prolongs the bias.

Given some of these challenges, would you recommend engineering as a career path for women?
Absolutely, I do not think the challenges are overwhelming. I think the career is very rewarding. Women have a lot to contribute in this field.

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What career advice do you have for women currently working in engineering?
Challenge yourself and ask for larger leadership roles. I think it’s important to get more women into higher-visibility management roles. I also think women should keep learning. Technology is ever-changing, so we must work to remain technically current and think about expanding our horizons by continually developing professional skills.

What advice do you have for women students who are considering the profession?
Go for it. You will find the technology exciting and the skills you learn will help you throughout your life.

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