Despite the great strides made toward gender equality over the last century, there are still a number of arenas where women are underrepresented in the workforce. Currently, engineering is one of those industries. Despite efforts being made to increase the number of females working in STEM fields according to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, only 14 percent of all professionals working in the engineering are women. This number is drastically lower than the percentage of women who are part of the entire U.S. labor force as a whole. The Department of Labor reported women made up 47 percent of the country’s workforce as of 2010.
However, while engineering remains disproportionately filled by male professionals, the imbalance does not tell the whole story of the state of the industry. Though less than a quarter of engineers are female, that number has been consistently growing over the last several decades, adding a large number of qualified women to the engineering workforce. As more women choose to pursue degrees in and enter the field, there is still much that can be done to continue to encourage this trend.
The increase in female engineers
When engineering first became a popular career choice in the U.S., working in math and science was not a common career path for women. But as times have changed and the STEM fields have become more inclusive, more and more women are pursuing careers that interest them without worrying about gender stereotypes. While the fact that only 14 percent of the workforce is composed of female employees, it is a drastic increase from the only 5.8 percent in the 1980s.
A number of factors are believed to have contributed to this trend. According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, many K through 12 schools and universities alike are making intentional efforts to encourage women to enter the field. By making STEM subjects come alive for students earlier in their academic career and then following up with appropriate resources at the collegiate level, women are more likely to pursue a career in engineering.
Many professional organizations are also partnering in these efforts.
“We work directly with superintendents to understand which schools need help in infusing exciting STEM curriculum into the classroom,” Stephanie Hill, the president of Lockheed Martin’s Information Systems & Global Solutions-Civil division, told the ASME. “In some instances, we bring teachers into our facilities for externships, giving them hands-on experiences that they take back to their classrooms. Our employees also partner with teachers, and visit classrooms periodically to discuss their current work and answer questions about career opportunities. This helps ‘put a face on engineering’ and provides career role models that many students are seeking.”
Consequently, it is not surprising that the number of female engineering students is also on the rise. A survey by the Cambridge Occupational Analysts reported that in the seven years leading up to 2014, the number of women interested in studying STEM subjects – including engineering – in college has increased more than that of their male counterparts. In fact, general engineering was being considered by more than 20 percent of female respondents, a 16 percent increase over the seven year period. Biomedical engineer Lina Nilsson, writing in the The New York Times, additionally reported that many universities in the U.S. are beginning to see more women enroll in their engineering programs than men.
Addressing gender barriers in the field
Despite the increased interest in engineering among women, there are still a number of challenges that are contributing to the continued gender inequality. One barrier that is often pointed to is the lack of female role models in the field. Because the number of women in the field is low, there are also few female leaders in engineering, which can make it difficult for new generations of female engineers to find mentors whom they feel they can relate to. This catch-22 is a hard one to resolve, as the best way to increase female leadership in engineering is by encouraging more women to enter the field.
In addition to pursuing careers in engineering less often than men, women are also leaving the industry at a higher rate. According to a longitudinal study presented at the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention in 2014, 40 percent of women who earn an engineering degree either leave the field or never enter it at all. This number indicates that simply encouraging women to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering is not enough to change the current gender imbalance in the workforce.
The study reported that one of the major reasons that women leave engineering is the work environment. Despite the growing female presence in the industry, some reported that many organizations still operate as a “boys club.” Others find that the work environment is not conducive for women who want to start a family. Between long hours and traveling to visit sites, the work schedule can make it hard for women who are trying to balance a career with commitments at home. But as more women enter the field, they are more likely to find that the culture of engineering groups will evolve with the shifting demographic, creating a more conducive environment for all employees.
However, not everyone agrees with the theory that work environment plays a major role.
“Women aren’t leaving engineering to go and hide in a corner. They are leaving for many reasons which a study like this may not find,” Elizabeth Bierman, president of the Society of Women Engineers, told NPR. “The work environment may be one reason, but for the majority it is not the case.”
Leveraging resources to promote women engineers
To continue to encourage women to enter the field of engineering, university, companies and professional organizations alike need to leverage several valuable resources. By creating an atmosphere that is conducive to all kinds of engineers, the industry will become stronger as a whole.
“We’ve found that women stay in engineering because they want to make sure they are making a difference,” Bierman told NPR. “If women feel they are making that difference, retention levels will be higher.”
A study by the Society of Women Engineers specifically emphasized the importance of gender integrated teams in the workplace. The research found that focusing on the team as a whole, rather than individuals, both helped professionals in their own career, and improved the participation of women in the field.
According to an article in the Society of Women Engineers Magazine, peer relationships are also critical for maintaining entry-level female employees and helping them to succeed.
Leading by example in the field
While female engineers may still be the minority in the field, there are many women who have become very successful in the industry. These women are breaking stereotypes and showing others that engineers can succeed in the field, no matter their gender.
One example is Ginni Rometty, CEO at IBM, who started her career as a systems engineer with the company according to Business Insider. She earned a degree in electrical engineering and computer science from Northwestern University.
Another example of a female engineer who has worked her way up in the industry is Jen Fitzpatrick, vice president of engineering and product management at Google. Fitzpatrick, who oversees engineering teams, including Google Maps, started with Google as one of the company’s first female engineers. She holds an undergraduate degree in symbolic systems and a master’s in computer science, both from Stanford University.
As more women take on prominent roles in the industry, it helps to shape the environment of the workplace to be more welcoming to other female engineers.
Setting yourself apart as a female in engineering
As women make advances in the field of engineering, now is the time to consider furthering your own career. There is high demand for engineering professionals in a number of industries, and salary expectations are promising.
One way to set yourself apart in a competitive field is through earning a master’s degree. A Master of Engineering degree will not only give you the specialized knowledge you need to succeed in the field, but also provide you with valuable skills that will equip you to take on a leadership role in an engineering organization. It is an immediate signal to employers that you not only have the in-depth experience it takes to succeed in a more senior role, but that you are dedicated to pursuing excellence in the field.
In University of California, Riverside’s online engineering master’s program, you can complete your degree while simultaneously working in the field. The flexibility of the online degree makes it especially appealing if you wish to continue in your current position while furthering your education. No matter your gender, a career as an engineer can provide an intellectual challenge and rewarding career path that can be launched conveniently with an online master’s in engineering.