In This Issue
Women in Engineering
June 1, 1999 Volume 29 Issue 2

The Future of Women in Engineering

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Nancy Ramsey

New, sustainable, and comprehensive initiatives for bringing women into engineering are possible but will require changes in the status quo.

Several months ago I began my research for these comments by asking what there was to celebrate about women in engineering. Over the months, in interviews and readings, I’ve found that there is indeed a great deal to celebrate.

First, there are great pioneers like Grace Hopper, who contributed groundbreaking work in computing. And there are outstanding contemporary women, many of whom are here today as participants, who make daily contributions to engineering through the excellence of their work and their support of other women, professional organizations, and schools.

There are also men to celebrate -- the mentors, relatives, colleagues, and leaders who have encouraged and welcomed women engineers. Students should also be celebrated. From grammar school to graduate school, tomorrow’s engineers are preparing for exciting, challenging, and rewarding careers. And, finally, there are the institutions and organizations that provide support, networking, encouragement, and funding to women in engineering.

But the celebration goes beyond the individuals. As a futurist I search for trends, and the most encouraging trend for women in engineering is best portrayed in contrasting pictures. Nearly 30 years ago this nation’s engineers led one of the greatest accomplishments of all time when America landed the first humans on the moon and returned them safely to Earth. Four subsequent crews followed in successive triumphs. Can you recall a picture of those engineers? They were all white men in white shirts, most with plastic pocket protectors to hold tidy rows of pens and pencils.

A Glimpse of the Future
On July 4, 1997, American engineers achieved another triumph in space, landing a craft on Mars and rolling out the diminutive but elegant Sojourner to explore the surface. That historic moment was shared with a rapt television and Internet audience of hundreds of millions worldwide. But the picture of Sojourner wasn’t the only memorable picture that day -- another was of women engineers working as equals in a program that obviously couldn’t have been executed without them.

That July 4 picture provided a glimpse into the future of engineering. It is a future rich in women and men of diverse cultures and races working to solve problems in a connected, technological world. It is what expanding companies tell us they need, and it is what the challenges of a new global economy dictate.

But that picture of a diverse team is a rare one. Engineering for the most part remains a predominantly white male profession. As Smith College found in its recent study of the engineering education system, roughly 5 out of 6 engineering students are male, as are 9 out of 10 engineering professors (Connolly, 1999). Women still make up less than 10 percent of working engineers in America today. A woman in engineering today is often a woman alone.

Is it changing? Yes. Are more women engineers joining the workforce every year? Yes. But despite these reasons for celebration, we should not pop all the champagne corks yet. Some should be saved for celebrating the milestones of progress in engineering accomplishments ahead. Some should be saved for those accomplishments that bring in and retain a broader, deeper pool of capable individuals doing the work they love -- engineering.

While each person’s decision to pursue her or his career is ultimately a personal one, an increasing body of research provides some insight into why there are so few women in science and engineering (see, for example, Blaisdell, 1995; Georgia Institute of Technology, 1998; MIT Faculty Newsletter, 1999). There are no secrets or mysteries in understanding the missing girls and women, and there are no magic bullets to solve the problems that contribute to their absence. What we know is this: "environmental" factors -- such as isolation, exclusion from networks, and lack of role models -- are a major source of discouragement for girls and women in science and engineering.

Much of the literature about women in science and engineering contains familiar stories. In interview after interview, women tell of workplaces where small, daily, demeaning, and condescending acts wear away at them. Some tell of assignments passed over and promotions denied. Others tell of being promoted too soon with little support in a new and difficult position, or of feeling set up for failure. Often these women choose to leave. If they sue they might win, but they might also risk never working again.

Although many women engineers persevere through such difficulties to achieve success, there are others who are less able to endure or fight for themselves. If progress is to be made, it is imperative that the subtle gender preference awarded to men in education and industry be understood, acted upon, and changed.

Executives, managers, line engineers, and educators sometimes state that it is not engineering’s job to deal with the attitudinal and behavioral factors that discourage girls and women from entering the field. Is it not fair, then, to ask whose job is it? Science, technology, and engineering all need the talent of women’s minds and the richness of their different perspectives. It must be all of our jobs to challenge and change those factors that discourage women.

Engineering is on a demographic collision course with the future. The generation of engineers who joined the workforce in the 1960s is well on its way to retirement, and the baby boomers will be leaving right behind them. Currently, 20 percent of our population is over 65, and by 2011 that number will double. A baby boomer turns 50 every 6.7 seconds -- more than 10,000 each day -- and we do not have a replacement generation.

Nearly half the graduates of America’s engineering schools today are foreign nationals -- welcome participants in our society, but people who don’t necessarily stay. Every year high-tech companies are forced to plead for more work visas for foreign engineers to fill positions for which there are not qualified American candidates. This dependence on skills and talents beyond our borders is considered by some to be a national crisis. If so, we must address it by mining the intelligence, energy, and resourcefulness of our female population. We need to raise our daughters to be engineers.

If we can put women into business, law, and medicine at levels nearly equal to men, why can’t we do it in engineering? If engineers can put people on the moon and robots on Mars, surely they can figure out how to put women in engineering.

Our task over these two days is to engage our collective creativity and intelligence to draw a new map for the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in engineering. We are here to identify and expand actions that have proved successful in the past, and to explore and adopt new ones. We are here to engage ourselves and others in this task, to go beyond lofty rhetoric, and to commit to ending this gender gap.

This is an exciting time to take up the challenge. We are midstream in rapid, deep, discontinuous changes in our economic, political, and social systems. While these changes are unsettling, they also offer an opportunity to review past practices and hold them up to the light of new realities. Let me paraphrase Alan Greenspan in his testimony before the Senate Budget Committee this year (Greenspan, 1999). When discussing the difficulties in making economic forecasts, he noted that we are facing completely new situations, with no models to follow and no successes to duplicate. To keep pace with change, we must make up new responses every day.

More of the Same Will Not be Enough
A Silicon Valley electrical engineering executive voiced it this way in explaining the demands in the technology world of the future: "What got us here won’t get us there." That simple sentence also fits the challenge of recruiting more women to engineering. More of the same will not be enough.

It is helpful to review the breadth of changes we experience each day:

  • Breakthroughs in technology are redrawing the parameters of communication and learning at levels of magnitude as great as those generated by the printing press in the sixteenth century. From distance learning to real-time news, the world is growing more connected.
  • Advances in biotechnology, medicine, and pharmaceuticals are extending the human life span. Many of us here today are likely to live to be 100.
  • New models for open, horizontal, transparent organizational systems are replacing the top-down hierarchies of aging command and control systems. From business to the military, open systems are challenging old structures.
  • Global economic integration is creating interdependence beyond what we could have imagined even a decade ago. International standards, agreements, and institutions are establishing new models in trade and commerce. Currencies and work efforts pulse around the globe 24 hours a day in never-ending cycles of intellectual and commodity production.
  • Environmental awareness has grown worldwide. International agreements are framing an approach to deal realistically with global climate change, and citizen groups prod and monitor corporate compliance and progress.
  • In the arts, designers and architects are using new materials and creativity to redesign the interface between light and space in public places in a manner unmatched since the great cathedrals of Europe. Dance is resplendent with new explorations of the human body’s grace and movement, and music is exploding with new sounds, new rhythms, and new ways of delivering classic and folk melodies.

And what about women? In the midst of this diverse, historic change, nothing has affected the twentieth century social order more than the change in the status of women. Every family, workplace, man, and woman feels it. Can we look at the magnitude of change around us and honestly believe that the kinds of programs we have used in the past will succeed now to encourage the sustainable recruitment and retention of women in engineering? If engineering is to recruit and retain women above current levels, can it do so without being more responsive to their expectations and needs?

Welcoming Women into Engineering
Perhaps we can answer those questions best by looking more closely at what researchers, pollsters, marketers, and women themselves tell us about their priorities and lives. First and foremost, women are clear that being equal with men does not mean being the same as men. Today more than ever, women see the characteristics and qualities of gender difference without any attached judgement of better or worse. Instead, they appreciate and celebrate those differences.

Women have confirmed through their experiences a confidence that there is often more than one way to accomplish a task, do an assignment, meet a deadline, or land a client. They articulate that the male norm is no longer acceptable as the default for what is standard or "right." Particularly in younger generations, women are determined to try new models for living and working, without the limiting stereotypes that so many of us have known. Their understanding can give us a new perspective of how to open the field of engineering to women.

Women go where they are welcomed. As they have been welcomed into law and medicine, they can be welcomed into engineering.

In their years of work on social and political issues, women have developed networks of contacts and informal communication channels. Today every community, business, political, and professional organization has a women’s network. Tapping into those networks gives women information they won’t find in newsletters or web pages. It tells them, for example, what other women are experiencing at work, from promotion fairness to family leave and wage equity.

Women today are working outside the home more than ever before. Fully 90 percent of America’s women will work outside the home during their lifetimes. How many work as engineers will be partly our responsibility. Young women know their options and are looking for workplaces and professions that treat them fairly and promote them equally.

Women continue to carry the majority of family responsibilities for both children and elder family members. While data show that increasing numbers of men share these responsibilities, particularly in younger generations, women still bear most of the burden, juggling work and family in a daily dance of improvisation. To meet their needs, women search out work situations that allow flexibility, and they reward those employers with increased loyalty. When intransigent work structures and attitudes make balancing work and family impossible, they increasingly leave, taking with them their education, training, experience, and clients.

Women are increasingly visible in corporate management -- nearly 40 percent of middle managers are women. But in the executive jobs and corporate board positions, their numbers remain at approximately 10 percent, only slightly higher than they were nearly 30 years ago.

Women are now the majority of graduates in high school and college, and their numbers are increasing in almost all graduate schools. They know that an education is the most demonstrable credential toward equality in the workplace, and they are willing to work hard and stay in school.

There are unique opportunities to build new, sustainable and comprehensive initiatives for bringing women into engineering today. To accomplish this, engineering must be ready for some changes. A key question for engineering is how much can it, like other professions, adapt to survive?

Engineering adapts well to technological change, but in terms of human resources it has a long way to go. To some minds, engineering’s survival as a profession may be at stake. If the predicted demand for engineers is left unmet, it could lead the marketplace to redefine the profession and establish new criteria to meet its own economic needs. The market will not wait forever to fill vacant engineering slots.

The days are over when engineering, science, and technology firms could count on the deep pockets of federal government agencies to fund research and prototype development. In the global marketplace the profit margin is increasingly generated from the intellectual capital of people, and more often, that capital has a woman’s face. Engineering, like the market, needs diversity to grow.

Changing Mental Maps
Changing long traditions and "mental maps" may be necessary, but it is not easy. Let me illustrate with a brief story. Early cartographers who drew North America for Spanish missionaries identified California as an island. It was a logical assumption based on observations of the Pacific Ocean and the Bay of Baja. So, the first missionaries to California took with them huge wooden boats. They hauled those boats across the state and over the mountains, only to find the great California desert -- a mighty big beach. The missionaries sent word to the cartographers that the maps were wrong. "California is not an island," they reported, "change the maps." The cartographers sent back word from Spain. "The map is right. You are in the wrong place." For nearly 80 years the maps stayed unchanged until the King of Spain prevailed upon the cartographers to correct them.

It is hard to change any map, especially our mental map. But if we are following the wrong map, our journey is surely in jeopardy. Gender-diverse recruitment and retention are essential to engineering. To achieve them we must first acknowledge the male gender preference that exists today. And like academic excellence and mathematics proficiency, we must make gender equity a concrete goal and adjust our mental map of engineering to include it.

Gender equity is as profound a change as the transition from the industrial to the digital age. It is as profound as leaving this beautiful blue Earth for the far reaches of space. It is possible. Engineers have led the way to historic triumphs in our lifetime and they can lead the way here too.

Consider with me what legacy this profession can leave. Engineers can make social and cultural changes of such depth and breadth that future generations will look back at this time and call it an engineering feat as profound as Stonehenge, as great as the pyramids.

Engineers took us to the moon in only 10 years. Engineers have taken us to Mars. Engineers can take us to gender equity.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. The race is on.

Blaisdell, S. 1995. Factors in the Underrepresentation of Women in Science and Engineering: A Review of the Literature. Women in Engineering Programs & Advocates Network (WEPAN) Working Paper 95-1. West Lafayette, Ind.: WEPAN.

Connolly, J. 1999. Speech delivered at All College Meeting, Smith College, Northampton, Mass., January 25.
Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT), 1998. InGEAR Report on the Status of Women at Georgia Tech. Atlanta, Ga.: GIT.

Greenspan, A. 1999. Statements before Committee on the Budget, U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C., January 28.
MIT Faculty Newsletter. 1999. A study on the status of women faculty in science at MIT. MIT Faculty Newsletter XI(4):1-16.

About the Author:Nancy Ramsey, former legislative director to Senator John Kerry, is a futurist, entrepreneur, and author. This is an edited version of her speech given 17 May 1999 at the NAE Summit on Women in Engineering.