In This Issue
Engineering for Women's Health
April 25, 2022 Volume 52 Issue 1
The articles in this issue describe the latest technologies for detection of breast and other cancers, approaches to reduce the incidence of premature births, and remote monitoring for pregnancy, a development of particular interest as the pandemic discouraged many people from going to a doctor’s office or hospital.

Invisible Bridges: A Bridge to Engineering for Youth

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Author: Simil Raghavan

As the NAE’s EngineerGirl celebrates its 20th year, I am thinking about how far we have come and how much there is still to do. In 2000 only 9 percent of the US engineering workforce identified as women despite gains in female involvement in other professions.[1] Women now account for 16 percent of engineers.[2] While that is evidence of progress, it is nowhere near enough. If the United States is to remain a technological powerhouse, all youth must be invited and encouraged to see themselves as engineers, and they must have access to equitable training and opportunities to get there.


In 1997 NAE members and staff recognized the need to create a more diverse engineering workforce, and getting more women engaged was seen as an important first step. A committee was formed with the dual goal of organizing a national summit to consider what should be done and developing a public-facing website celebrating the contributions of female engineers. That website and the summit were dubbed the Celebration of Women in Engineering. At the time the internet was still relatively new and the website represented a novel way for the NAE to communicate with the public.

After the summit a second committee was assembled to advise the NAE on next steps. That group identified the importance of focusing on a younger audience—middle school girls—and the website was redesigned with them in mind. A Girls Advisory Board of 15 middle school girls throughout North America met via chat rooms to talk about what they would like to see in a site about engineering, and in 2001 EngineerGirl was launched with many redesigned resources from the Celebration site. It went live during Engineers Week, in combination with activities around the country to establish the very first Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,[3] which continues today.

EngineerGirl’s Unique Focus

The unique focus on middle school girls has defined and sustained EngineerGirl ever since. Other visitors—high school and elementary school girls, educators, caregivers, and families—are certainly part of the site’s intended audience, but every resource or program added is specifically evaluated to see if it would be understandable and helpful to children in grades 6–8.

The goal is still to support and inspire girls to explore engineering careers, by

  • giving girls and their caregivers nonthreatening ways to learn about engineering fields through programs like the annual writing contest, the Ask an Engineer feature, and EngineerGirl Ambassadors;
  • helping students understand what engineers do, with articles and features that spotlight engineers and put faces behind the products;
  • providing approachable role models from a wide range of fields and backgrounds to help youth imagine what a career in engineering could look like for them;
  • pointing out how engineering relates to girls’ lives (and those of their family and community) and how engineers make a positive difference in the world;
  • and, perhaps most importantly, highlighting girls’ voices by giving them recognition, sharing their ­stories, and bringing attention to the issues that ­matter to them.

Extending the Engineering Community

With all the focus on women and girls over the last 20 years, it is worth asking if there is more the NAE ought to be doing, and if we are reaching the girls with the least access to engineering.

While the percentage of women working in engineering careers has nearly doubled, they still receive only 22.4 percent of US engineering bachelor’s degrees. What’s more, despite representing 31.7 percent of the US population, only 16.8 percent of US engineering bachelor’s degrees go to Native American, Hispanic, and Black students, and only one quarter of those to women. This means that an even larger part of the population is being excluded— even as the economy increasingly depends on skilled technical and engineering jobs.

Only when the nature of the problem and the expectations of stakeholders are fully understood can effective solutions be imagined.

After spending 20 years building the capabilities to engage and support a K-12 audience, the NAE is well positioned to provide a platform for outreach to the diverse populations of the United States. But doing so is not nearly as simple as creating another website. While the campaign that brought attention to the need for more women in engineering is still ongoing, a truly diverse and representative engineering workforce will be achieved only through changes in all the pathways into engineering and through measures that identify, remove, and circumvent the roadblocks that keep ­people out.

EngineerGirl and the associated national outreach campaign for girls began because of a recognition that girls weren’t being told about opportunities in engineering. That is one barrier, but the roadblocks for young people from underrepresented racial groups, and for girls in general, go deeper than that. We know some of the barriers that keep them from considering engineering studies and work, but we do not understand them all and so we do not yet know how to address them effectively.

The Importance of Listening

A new campaign to build a more diverse engineering workforce is needed, but now the starting place is different, thanks to an additional 20 years of research on technological learning. Numerous initiatives support early introduction of engineering into K-12 classrooms, and programs highlight diverse role models, but one thing that remains mostly quiet is the voice of the youth themselves.

It is all too easy to believe that the engineering community can by itself fix the issues that deter people from engineering careers, but effective solutions will not be found without listening carefully to other relevant stakeholders. These include not only social scientists and educators who work with youth but also the families and children who will make decisions in the next few years about where they would like to spend their lives and careers.

As EngineerGirl completes its 20th year, I propose a new campaign: a national listening campaign, to collect and share stories and amplify the many voices that are often unheard. This will involve talking with youth, finding out why they may or may not consider a career in engineering, and thoughtfully considering their perspectives. Asking questions and defining the issues are, after all, a major component of the engineering design process, and only when the nature of the problem and the expectations of stakeholders are fully understood can effective solutions be imagined.

There are likely many reasons why youth opt not to study engineering, so simply telling them that engineering offers great opportunities may not change minds—and in some cases it may not be true. Before we can honestly tell children that engineering will offer them a better future, we must be sure that that is true for those whom we aim to reach. We can know that only when we understand their perspectives and know what they imagine a better future to be.



Only when the nature of the problem and the expectations of stakeholders are fully understood can effective solutions be imagined.


[1]Inspired by the name of this quarterly, this column reflects on the practices and uses of engineering and its influences as a cultural enterprise. The author greatly appreciates input and guidance from Christine M. Cunningham, founding director of Youth Engineering Solutions (YES) at Penn State University and chair of the IDEEA Guidance Committee.

National Science Board. 2000. Science and Engineering Indicators 2000. Alexandria VA: National Science Foundation.

[2]  Burke A, Okrent A, Hale K. 2022. The State of US Science and Engineering 2022. Alexandria VA: National Science Foundation.


About the Author:Simil Raghavan is director of the NAE’s Inclusive, Diverse, and Equitable Engineering for All (IDEEA) program.