When it comes to engineers, most people think of men. Even in 2015, a large majority of engineers are men. Engineers Canada reports that less than 12% of practicing licensed Professional Engineers in Canada are women. The United States reports between 18% and 20%. Why is this? Women have the same intelligence and capabilities as men. What is it that keeps women from the profession? Part of it is misperceptions that women have, both about themselves and engineering in general. Part of it is a culture that doesn’t encourage young women to enter the profession.
One study at Florida State University found that a wide gap exists in the perception of math ability between girls and boys. There was no real difference in the actual abilities of the two genders. Boys tend to overestimate their math abilities. Girls are likely to perceive their math abilities to be less than they are in reality. They feel that their strengths lie in non-technical tasks such as writing and communication. Girls also have more of a fixed mindset when it comes to technical abilities than boys. Girls feel that you have to be a “brilliant math person” to get it. Boys tend to see math skills as pliable and something they can improve. Girls feel that other people who succeed in math-intensive programs have a natural ability. They believe that the programs are not challenging for these "brilliant" people. This creates a mentality that, if there is any resistance, they are not capable of doing the job.
Another study focused on women’s perceptions and misperceptions of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers. The study showed that girls did not know much about the engineering fields. Many young women interviewed saw engineering careers as outdoor, construction-related activities. Others felt that engineers deal more with computers and machinery than people. Many women were not interested in STEM careers because they did not see a benefit to society. Young women more often lean toward careers in social sciences. Social sciences benefit society, have a better work-life balance, and are more people-oriented than STEM careers. This pattern is also seen within the different engineering types. Biomedical and Environmental Engineering show a much stronger female presence than other engineering fields. These two fields are more known for their societal impact than other engineering careers. Abstract concepts of engineering and technology fields do not appeal to many women. Women are more motivated to enter a career in STEM fields if they can see how the technical aspects apply to the real world.
A shortage of role models and mentors is another factor in preventing women from entering STEM careers. It doesn’t feel “normal” to many young women considering engineering fields. They do not see many people like themselves and don't feel comfortable. Once in the field, female engineers lack supportive peer groups to aid them in their career paths. They also do not have as much encouragement and guidance from mentors that have been in their shoes as their male counterparts. Because they are not as aware of what to expect, they aren’t able to move up as quickly as men. Women have to spend time and energy advocating for themselves because of the deficient support system. This makes it harder for the older generation of women to help the younger women move up in their careers.
Corporate culture in STEM careers does not favor women. Many employers do not allow the flexibility for women (and men in the main care-giver role) to work and take care of their families. Also, many women feel that, if they decide stop working to take care of their families, they will have to restart their careers.
Some people may wonder, if women are not interested in entering these careers, why does it matter? Why not just let things stay as they are? The main reason to encourage more women to enter STEM careers is to help fill future jobs. Demand for qualified, competent engineers is growing in both the U.S. and Canada. By excluding women from these careers, a large section of the talent pool is unavailable. Science and engineering rely on bright individuals to uphold a high level of quality and integrity. Recruiting top minds from both genders can meet the demand without losing the expected excellence in the field.
Another reason engineering needs more women and minorities is that diversity fosters innovation. A heterogeneous group brings differing backgrounds, cultures, and ideas to the profession, allowing for more possibilities than with a group with similar backgrounds.
Many initiatives are taking place to begin to change the STEM culture. One such initiative is the “30 by 30” program from Engineers Canada. The goal is to increase the percentage of female practicing licensed Professional Engineers to 30% by 2030. 30% is thought to be the tipping point in the industry. It is the point at which the mass adoption of ideas takes hold and the amount needed for a self-sustaining culture. It plans to do so by recognizing segments of the profession that make significant progress toward this goal.
In the U.S., the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) are lobbying to get legislation passed for affirmative action for women and minorities in STEM careers. SWE is also focused on teaching young women about careers in engineering and fostering interest in the subject.
Encouraging women to become engineers is important for Canada, the U.S., and many other nations worldwide. Mentorships and education programs to inspire young girls are key in sparking interest in the subjects. Making the culture more flexible and personable is vital to keeping women in the profession. By welcoming the best and brightest from both genders, the field of engineering its legacy of distinction.