Engineering Equality

A Sustainable Future Depends on a Lot More Women Engineers

Over the past few years, the media has widely documented how American students are slipping behind the rest of the developed world in math and science. This has major implications not only for technology industries in the U.S., but for the renewable energy sector, too. Consider, for a moment, the people who design the greener homes and more fuel-efficient cars, create biodegradable materials and help industries lower their carbon footprint: scientists and engineers.

The number of women entering engineering has flat-lined over the past few years.©

What is especially unnerving, however, is how the number of women entering engineering has flat-lined over the past few years. According to the American Society for Engineering Education, the number of women obtaining bachelor’s degrees in engineering peaked in 2004 at 15,282 and steadily dropped to 14,101 in 2007. The fraction of engineering degrees that go to women hovers around 20% and has not changed significantly in the past decade.

Engineering has long been considered a "masculine" career, and despite the great strides women have made in obtaining medical and law degrees and getting elected to political office, engineering continues to lag behind. Since 2001, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has invested more than $130 million in ADVANCE (Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering careers). Sadly, the statistics do not reflect the NSF’s effort.

This gender gap is hampering technological advances in environmentalism. The U.S. is facing a shortage of engineers, which will be exacerbated by the baby-boomers" retirement. America has a huge reservoir of untapped engineering talent in its young women—women who are not going into engineering because of roadblocks like lack of encouragement, cultural norms, peer pressure and most importantly, failure to understand how engineers can contribute to the world around them.

Increasing the number of women in engineering increases the total number of people working on energy and sustainability problems. Many universities offer environmental engineering degrees, a department which usually has one of the highest percentages of women, but all disciplines of engineering contribute on projects related to the environment. For example, my alma mater, the University of Iowa, offers a degree in Civil/Environmental Engineering and the option of focusing electives on energy and environment for both Chemical and Mechanical Engineering majors.

Fortunately, there are a lot of resources for girls interested in becoming engineers. The Society for Women Engineers has set the goal of women holding 30% of engineering positions by 2020. SWE also has chapters at many universities and local K-12 outreach programs.

Engineer Girl is a nonprofit organization focused on making engineering more appealing to young girls. Their website emphasizes the collaborative environment of engineering, job security and location flexibility. Engineer Girl also has suggestions on what classes to take in high school, profiles on women engineers and an annual essay contest.

Many universities even offer engineering summer camps for adolescent girls. For example, the University of California in Santa Cruz runs a two-week summer camp for junior high school girls. Activities include building a motorized robot, meeting women engineers and touring the school’s research facilities. More information is available at: Girls in Engineering.

To appeal to young women, the focal points need to be shifted to the people-side of engineering: working in teams, solving problems in a community, helping people connect through better technology. Additionally, programs such as Engineers Without Borders, which improves the quality of life in third-world countries, can draw in those women who are led by their ideals, and a desire to impact the lives of those in need.

Young women need to understand that engineering is not just about motors, circuits and fancy calculators. It’s a profession that’s directly responsible for creating cleaner waterways, greener homes and a safer food supply. Bringing more women into the fold moves our communities and our environment in the right direction.

JULIE KARCESKI is an editorial intern at E.