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Women in Engineering


Women in Engineering (editorial)

The United States is one of the world’s leaders in technology and innovation, a position it owes largely to the strength of its engineering and technical workforce. However, that workforce faces increasing challenges, both internal and external in nature, that threaten our nation’s preeminent position. The external challenges are well known, and they face every company: the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy, the rapid pace of change, and the global distribution of markets. The internal challenges relate to the very makeup of our engineering workforce and in many ways are more difficult to address.

The U.S. engineering workforce is predominantly white male and is aging rapidly. Over the last 15 years, the total number of individuals choosing engineering studies and careers has been decreasing. Of those students who initially choose engineering coursework, even fewer actually graduate with engineering degrees. This decline in the number of students in the engineering pipeline, coupled with increasing rates of retirement among engineers trained in the early 1960s, points to a potential resource crisis. Projected market demands and current enrollment trends suggest that the United States may experience a serious shortfall in the number of engineers needed to fill jobs within the next decade. This need not be as it is!

At first glance, our nation seems to have an untapped resource ready to respond to this need -- more than half our population is female, and more girls than boys graduate from high school and enter college. Unfortunately, fewer than 20 percent of the college students who choose to study engineering are female. And beyond college the numbers are worse. There are proportionately fewer women in engineering than in all other scientific or technical fields, and women constitute less than nine percent of the engineering workforce. This is unacceptable.

For the United States to remain competitive in a global, technological society, the country as a whole must take serious steps to create a diverse, well-trained, and multicultural workforce. Of specific concern is our ability to "engineer well" without a workforce that reflects the face of America as well as that of global markets. The ability to attract young women is a significant challenge faced by the engineering community, specifically by those corporations with a stake in the nation’s technological future.

In order to address this issue, the NAE initiated the Celebration of Women in Engineering (CWE) project. Key individuals from academia, industry, engineering-related societies, and educational support organizations -- noted for their active roles in encouraging women to pursue math, science, and engineering fields -- were solicited to participate on the steering committee for this project. Once assembled, the committee noted that many initiatives related to women in engineering have been implemented in both the public and private sectors, and yet significant change in the workforce has remained elusive. The committee felt that new national initiatives -- with strong corporate involvement -- would be required before any effective change could occur. To guide its efforts, the steering committee defined three goals:

  • Elevate the visibility of outstanding women engineers, drawing attention to their careers and their respective fields of engineering.
  • Encourage young women at the secondary school and undergraduate levels to consider engineering as a course of study.
  • Increase active participation in addressing this problem by helping corporate executives and other national leaders understand the issues related to the low numbers of women in engineering.

To support these goals, the steering committee pursued two major initiatives. The first was to establish a website with information pertaining to the pursuit of an engineering career. The CWE website provides information about educational resources, mentoring programs, careers, and funding, as well as a discussion room and an event calendar. The centerpiece of the site is a gallery of women engineers that profiles women from various professions and industry sectors, demonstrating the wide variety of options open to women interested in engineering.

The second initiative was the Summit on Women in Engineering, convened by the NAE 17-18 May 1999. The summit brought together 175 top decision makers from industry, academia, professional societies, government, education and outreach organizations, and the media to examine existing and potential solutions for attracting more women to the engineering workforce. The purpose of the summit was to create a national action plan, based upon new partnerships among the various stakeholder groups, to pursue these solutions.

The summit plenary sessions were devoted to the different points at which girls and women are "lost" from the engineering pipeline (e.g., dissuaded from science interest in middle school, discouraged from studying science and math in high school, discouraged from pursuing an engineering degree as an undergraduate, deterred from advancement in the workforce). The summit participants heard from several women who achieved exciting and successful engineering careers, despite obstacles along the way. But the obstacles they described were all too familiar: the poor image of engineering as a career for women, the chilly climate faced by women in college and in the workplace, and a professional life that limits the career potential of women.

On the second day of the summit, participants took part in a series of action forums that concentrated on specific issues and strategies, such as changing the public perception of who can become an engineer, promoting opportunities in engineering for women, and highlighting the best programs for attracting women to engineering. These sessions explored ways to improve existing programs and to create a national approach to address the problem more effectively.

We are pleased to report that the response to the summit was strong -- as evidenced by the high energy levels in the action forums, the language used to craft the forum reports, and the initial commitments from the participants. The outcomes of the summit are still in development, and in the next issue of The Bridge we plan to report on some of the new partnerships and collaborative efforts that have been formed. In the meantime, we’d like to thank the steering committee, the NAE program staff, and the summit participants for their hard work.

A few of the keynote addresses from the summit are included in this issue of The Bridge, and we encourage you to read them and join us in our excitement. The Summit on Women in Engineering marked the beginning of a process that we hope will help to foster a diverse and strong workforce ready to support this nation in the next century. But it was only a beginning -- it will take commitment from all of us before we can claim success in creating this new movement toward recruiting, retaining, and advancing women in engineering.
About the Author: Wm. A. Wulf is president of the National Academy of Engineering. E. Gail de Planque, a member of the NAE, is a consultant and former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She chaired the steering committee that organized the NAE Summit on Women in Engineering, held 17-18 May 1999.