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

Women in Engineering: Focus on Success

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Donna Shirley

Numerous opportunities exist for creative solutions to the problem of insufficient numbers of women engineers in the workforce.

I would like to offer some suggestions, based on recent research and my personal experience, for increasing the number of women engineers in the workforce, the satisfaction and productivity of those women, and the productivity of the workforce as a whole. The premise of my argument rests on the notions that creativity and diversity are linked and that both are necessary to fully exploit the potential of women to contribute to the science and technology enterprise.

There are considerable challenges to creating a more diverse workforce, as well as considerable rewards. While diverse teams may be more creative than homogenous ones (Peters, 1994), they are often harder to manage (Shirley, 1997). If you’re a member of a diverse team, some people on the team are probably going to make you uncomfortable just by not acting the way your culture expects them to. For instance, I’m the classic "pushy broad." After more than 35 years in a male-dominated business, I’ve become vocal, assertive to the point of aggressiveness, and, to some people, obnoxious. On the other hand, I have a lot of experience being overlooked or ignored if I’m not assertive. I’ve had to learn to walk the fine line between being ignored because people overlook me, and being suppressed because people are angry with me. And however I am, it creates cognitive dissonance in a male culture where women acting like women are out of place and women acting like men are just plain weird.

The advantage of diverse teams is that the viewpoints of one group are very likely new to others. This newness is what fuels creativity. Hammer and Champy (1993) emphasize the need for reengineering teams to include women. They maintain that a team with women will be much more creative than an all-male team. Coates and Jarratt (1994) note that even in Japan women are slowly entering the creative workforce: "Japanese companies . . . are breaking open conventions of Japanese society and culture to bring creativity up to the surface. . . . Toshiba’s break with tradition was to recruit women scientists and engineers, now 10 percent of its R&D workforce." Other research and my personal experience have confirmed the increased creativity of diverse teams over homogenous teams.

There are many books addressing gender-related culture in the workplace (see, for example, Reardon, 1995; Tannen, 1990). But it’s perfectly possible for men and women to be on the same creative team. In fact, it’s highly desirable, particularly if both men and women will be using your product. What’s required to make it work is an environment of mutual respect.

To get gender diversity in the engineering workforce there have to be reasons for women to want to enter the field. My personal reason was a passion for flight.

I know many people who have no idea what they want to be when they grow up, but one recent study (Carr, 1996) shows that it’s important for people’s mental well-being to have and reach career goals. For those who are lucky enough to have a life passion, it’s easy to decide on those goals. For instance, ever since I was a little girl, I loved airplanes. My room was full of airplane pictures, books, and models.

When I was 10, my family went to my uncle’s graduation from medical school. In the program was an intriguing list of people who were becoming aeronautical engineers. "What’s that?," I asked my mother. "Those are people who build airplanes," she replied. "That’s what I want to be when I grow up!," I cried.

For my fifteenth birthday my father bought me flying lessons. I learned to fly Aeronca Champs -- 65 horsepower "tail draggers." We had no radios and only needle-ball and airspeed indicators for instruments. I was the only female pilot at the Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, airport, tolerated as a "kid sister" by the male pilots.

At barely seventeen, having graduated first in my high school class of 49 students, I set out confidently for the University of Oklahoma. I walked into my advisor’s office. He glared at me. "What are you doing here?" he growled. "I’m signing up for aeronautical engineering."

"Girls can’t be engineers!"

"Yes, I can!"

The Only Girl in Class
It was a struggle, but eventually I got a degree in aeronautical engineering, which by then had been updated to the more modern name of aerospace mechanical engineering. I also had a commercial and flight instructor’s rating, and for a while gave flying lessons. All this time, I was the only girl in my engineering classes.

Between the time my uncle graduated and when I went to college, I had discovered science fiction and become awed by the idea of space travel. In my first job, at the McDonnell Aircraft Company in St. Louis, I wrote specifications for the Gemini spacecraft that carried two astronauts into orbit. Later, I became involved at McDonnell in a proposal to land a spacecraft on Mars. I had become a space nut, and I looked beyond flying in earthly skies to landing on alien planets, even if only in robotic spacecraft.

In 1966, I successfully applied for a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as an aerodynamicist, a person who calculates how airplanes and spacecraft interact with atmosphere. Out of about 2,000 engineers at JPL when I arrived in 1966, I was the only degreed female. There was a woman scientist who had come to JPL in 1959, but I seldom got a chance to interact with her. There were a number of women doing semitechnical work, running the mechanical Frieden calculators that were used to determine planetary spacecraft trajectories. These women were called "computers."

By the middle 1970s, there were about five female engineers at JPL. Today, some 15 percent of the JPL technical workforce is women. But women are just beginning to penetrate the ranks of technical management. For my whole 32-year career at JPL, I was always the only woman at my management level. Today, JPL has one woman on the executive council, the director of human resources. The highest-ranking technical woman since I retired last year is the deputy manager of a line organization, about four rungs down from the top of JPL.

Role Models Needed
Women interested in engineering in the 1950s and 1960s had to be willing to do without role models, mentors, special training, or any of the other things that surveys indicate are necessary to increase the participation of women in the engineering workforce. Passion was what drove most women to the profession. How can we strike up a passion in more women today?

One way would be for more engineers, especially women engineers, to tell their stories. I’ve moderated panels at the American Film Institute that discussed the portrayal of scientists and engineers in movies and television. The stereotypes of mad scientists and nerd engineers are ubiquitous. Few stories of real engineers in action are portrayed, partly because few engineers write about their experiences in a publicly appealing way. A recent exception is Homer Hickam, a NASA engineer who wrote Rocket Boys (Delacorte Press, 1998), a story based on his experiences as a teenager in West Virginia, building home-made rockets. The book was made into a fairly successful movie called October Sky.

Astronauts are very visible role models, and movies like Apollo 13 have made them even more visible. I give many talks to school children, most of whom express a wish to be astronauts. Very few say they want to be one of the engineers who help propel the astronauts into space.

Astronauts have written books, for example Moon Shot (Turner Publishing, 1994) by Deke Slayton and Alan Shepard. Authors like Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton write high-tech adventures. Even scientists like Richard Feynman, Steven Hawkings, and Carl Sagan have written for the masses. But where are the women engineers and scientists writing popular literature? My autobiography, Managing Martians (Broadway Books, 1998), is a lonely example.

Even without a lot of role models, today we know more about what it takes to broaden the participation of women in engineering. A recent study (Tidball et al., 1999) of how education contributes to success for women outlines a number of key institutional characteristics of colleges:

  • Visionary leadership committed to the education of women
  • Critical mass of women in all constituencies (students, faculty, boards of trustees, etc.)
  • Belief in women’s capacities and high expectations
  • Places and spaces for women’s voices to be heard
  • Opportunities for women’s leadership in all aspects of institutional life
  • Celebration of traditions and institutional history
  • High degree of trust and responsibility
  • Active and empowering alumnae association

This research found that women’s colleges were much better than other postsecondary institutions in terms of producing successful career women in virtually all fields, including the physical sciences. Since there are very few women’s colleges that offer engineering degrees, most women engineers have been educated under difficult conditions, in colleges that do not have the success-linked criteria listed above.

Even in schools where women comprise 20 or 30 percent of engineering classes, they are unlikely to have many female faculty or administration role models. They will be lucky to have one or two female teachers during their college years. The leadership at engineering colleges is not as concerned with the commitment to women’s education as it is to the technical quality of the program, especially of the research. And it’s hard for male engineers to be visionary about the education of women. For the most part, alumnae associations and professional associations for engineers are focused on jobs, continuing engineering education, and technical communications -- not on empowering women.

So how can we break the pattern? How can we provide an engineering education in an environment that will have a high probability of attracting young women, retaining them through college, and sustaining them in the world of work? There are some positive trends.

For instance, Smith College, a liberal arts college for women in Massachusetts, plans to offer an engineering degree beginning in September 1999 (Smith College, 1999). This is facilitated by Smith being in a consortium of nearby colleges, including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which has an established engineering program. Smith also has a joint engineering program with Dartmouth College.

Scripps College for Women in Claremont, California (from which my daughter graduated in May 1999), is across the street from Harvey Mudd, an engineering and science college. Some women at Scripps take engineering courses at Harvey Mudd, since the five Claremont colleges allow cross-enrollment. Scripps offers a "3/2" program where women can get a Scripps liberal arts education for two years and then get an engineering degree at an affiliated engineering school in three years. Scripps is also graduating increasing numbers of science majors and is adding women scientists to its faculty. This model could be applied to other women’s colleges that are in close proximity to schools offering engineering degrees, such as Spelman College for Women in Atlanta, which is close to all-male Morehouse University.

Women are beginning to attain positions of leadership in engineering schools. For instance, Shirley Ann Jackson was just selected as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Some engineering schools are making sincere efforts to attract women as faculty and as members of their advisory committees. I am on the advisory council of the Georgia Tech Aerospace Engineering School and the University of Oklahoma Aerospace/Mechanical Engineering School, and I serve on the Board of Visitors of the University of Oklahoma College of Engineering. There are two other women on the board, both Oklahoma engineering alumnae.

The Role of Organizations
Another positive sign is the proliferation of women’s technical and business organizations, most of which have some sort of connection with college-level education. Especially noteworthy is the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), which has chapters on most engineering campuses. Another important organization is Women in Technology International (WITI), which has conferences around the country and which lowers its fees for college students. Women are slowly penetrating the ranks of professional engineering societies. For example, I am an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and was extremely honored to receive the Holley Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in 1998. Even the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has 44 women among its 2000 members, and admits it could do better.

A little-known organization called the American Academy of Achievement sponsors an annual event where a couple hundred select high school students can meet high-achieving adult role models. A number of the members of this academy are engineers and scientists, a few of these are women, and the academy’s organizers are working hard to include more technically trained women.

Sponsorship of the Summit of Women in Engineering by the NAE is an excellent step. The summit is squarely addressing the issue of how to get girls into engineering and produce successful women engineers. The next summit (I trust there will be one) should include experts in the education of women, and the NAE should aggressively disseminate the results of the summits to America’s engineering colleges.

The main responsibility for educating women engineers lies, of course, with colleges of engineering. And some engineering schools are beginning to rethink their educational processes. Distance-learning schools are springing up, competing with established colleges for students and resources. In response, some engineering schools, such as those at the University of Oklahoma and Georgia Tech, are considering adding distance learning to their classical curricula. Engineering pedagogy is being examined, too. The old model of a professor standing at a blackboard scribbling equations that the students frantically copy is being questioned. While different methods of teaching engineering are being developed for other reasons, universities might very well consider what methods work best for educating women.

Engineering is being increasingly practiced in a team environment. If engineering education focused not only on developing the minds of the smartest individuals but also on developing people who can be effective working in teams, that would be a very good environment for attracting women. (My personal belief is that more women like working in teams than working alone.) Extending that thought, engineering is increasingly a creative endeavor. And as I’ve already noted, creative teams require diversity. If universities can learn to train people to work in creative teams, this will go a long way to providing a woman-friendly environment.

Furthermore, the training of creative teams need not be restricted to "technical subjects." Harnessing collective creativity to produce useful, saleable, and innovative products can be made a lot more effective by using a process that specifically addresses all the phases of a product life cycle, and all the techniques available to create and bring the product to reality.

Elements of the Creative Process
Such a creative process can be visualized as a system of interrelated elements:

  • Build teams
  • Generate concepts
  • Achieve alignment
  • Design/plan
  • Manage risk
  • Produce
  • Deploy
  • Evaluate
  • Communicate

These elements are described briefly below.

Build teams. Building a team means not only assembling the right set of people with the diverse skills to do the job, but the process by which the team grows in capability and alignment throughout the process of collective creativity.

Generate concepts. This is where people tend to think that creativity occurs, and, indeed, a creative enterprise needs to start with a creative concept. However, an enterprise needs creativity at all stages, and the concept evolves throughout the process.

Achieve alignment. Alignment is required within the creative team, between the team and its customers and suppliers, between the team and other teams in an organization, and between the team and its management. Alignment means agreement between the parties not only as to the vision for the enterprise, but also alignment between the vision and the resources required to achieve it. A failure to align properly is responsible for many cost overruns and product delivery problems.

Design/plan. The design and planning process forms the basis for the implementation of the creative enterprise, as well as for the "contracts" which are the basis of a formal alignment.

Manage risk. Creative enterprises are inherently risky. Management of risk throughout the creative process is key to success and allows creativity to be channeled. Risk management must begin at the earliest stages of the process and be an integral part of alignment, planning, production, and deployment.

Produce. Production may be carried out by anything from a laboratory experiment to a production line. The ability to produce must be considered at all stages of the process.

Deploy. Deployment can involve putting a product into the marketplace and providing maintenance support for it, or it can be merely handing a product off from the laboratory bench to the prototyping process.

Evaluate. Proactive, efficient, and constant evaluation is key to managing any creative enterprise. Evaluation includes selecting the right metrics, performing those measurements, and having the appropriate skills to assess how the enterprise is doing. Evaluation is an inherent part of the risk management process.

Communicate. The glue of the creative system is communication, which must be constant, effective, information-rich, and well managed. Communication technology is burgeoning, and the extraction of information from data is becoming ever more difficult. But if dealt with effectively, these factors can be used to move an enterprise forward with great speed.

If colleges were training engineers to create collectively in addition to developing engineering competency, the following abilities (and associated coursework) would fit into such a curriculum:

  • Build teams (psychology, anthropology, organizational development)
  • Generate concepts (creativity, fine arts)
  • Achieve alignment (negotiation, business/management, psychology, political science)
  • Design/plan (business/management)
  • Manage risk (cost estimation, business/management)
  • Produce (manufacturing processes, industrial engineering, business/management)
  • Deploy (marketing)
  • Evaluate (management, marketing)
  • Communicate (speech/broadcasting, information systems, visual arts)

While there are few women on engineering faculties, there are many in the arts, humanities, and business. Integration of these kinds of classes into engineering curricula would not only help prepare engineers to work in creative enterprises, but also would allow female role models to penetrate the engineering classrooms. Collaborative teaching involving male engineers and, say, female artists would provide a paradigm for gender teaming in the workplace.

I want to mention a new experiment in multidisciplinary education at the K-12 level that might have implications for woman-friendly engineering education. The Mars Millennium Project, a project of the White House Millennium Council, provides an opportunity for children to design a Martian community for 100 humans. The project will take place during the 1999-2000 school year and is sponsored by the Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the J. Paul Getty Trust. The children must consider not only the technical design of the community, but also issues of art, entertainment, governance, and architecture.

A Multidisciplinary Project
The project aims to have children who are interested in the arts and humanities participating in teams with children whose focus is more technical. Autobiographies of famous artists and scientists will be provided on the website as inspiration, and engineers, scientists, and practitioners of arts and humanities will be available for web chats and as role models. A videotape is being produced that will feature discussions between artists and scientists about what it would be like to do art on Mars. They are considering questions like, Is there sufficient silicon in the soil to make glass for glass blowing? Is there clay for pottery? What are the colors of Mars and the lighting conditions? What are dance and architecture like when the gravity is only three-eighths that on Earth? Would low-pressure air in the habitats affect the sound of music? I am the project spokesperson and will be moderating the videotape.

In the first week after the project was announced, 15,000 classrooms and groups had signed up to participate. We anticipate that hundreds of thousands to millions of school children will have the experience of a multidisciplinary Mars adventure. It would be fascinating for someone to do a study of how such multidisciplinary exercises work, and perhaps to extrapolate the experience to the college level.

Let’s assume that some of these ideas work, and we get more women engineers into the workplace. How do we keep them there? Women are increasingly dropping out of corporate life and starting their own companies. I have read that 80 percent of new businesses are started by women and that women-owned businesses employ more people than the Fortune 500. However, most engineers are still employed by large companies. Why are women entrepreneurial rather than corporate, and what would it take for engineering companies to retain women?

I believe that many of the same factors that are linked to the success of women’s colleges can apply to women in corporate life. Paraphrasing Taking Women Seriously (Tidball et al., 1999), these include

  • visionary leadership committed to the acquisition and retention of women,
  • a critical mass of women in all constituencies (technicians, engineers, scientists, managers),
  • belief in women’s capacities and high expectations,
  • places and spaces for women’s voices to be heard,
  • opportunities for women’s leadership in all aspects of corporate life,
  • celebration of traditions and institutional history,
  • a high degree of trust and responsibility, and
  • active and empowering women’s associations in the company (e.g., Hewlett Packard’s Women’s Networks and JPL’s Advisory Council for Women).

Instilling these qualities will not be easy for most engineering organizations, many of which are mature, led by middle-aged or elderly white males, and steeped in Cold War engineering culture. It will be particularly difficult for aerospace and energy companies (i.e., oil companies and power utilities) and somewhat easier for companies in newer industries such as computers and information systems. It is no accident that the stronghold of WITI is Silicon Valley.

Future Efforts
We should focus our efforts on influencing companies in evolving industries like biotechnology to hire women, and on encouraging women to go into emerging engineering fields like bioengineering. Universities could team up with the new industries to provide information to prospective students about career opportunities. Organizations like the NAE and SWE could provide workshops and seminars for high school or even middle school girls about opportunities in these fields.

Organizations like ASME and the NAE could make special efforts to include a number of women, not just one or two, on their governing bodies, so that there would be a critical mass of women in important constituencies who could provide leadership in getting those organizations to focus on creating and retaining women engineers.

Government organizations such as the Department of Education, NASA, and the National Science Foundation could provide incentives (e.g., grants) to universities to promote women on their faculties and in their administrations and to develop woman-friendly engineering curricula. Companies can encourage the creation of women’s organizations that can provide "places and spaces" for women’s voices to be heard. The JPL Advisory Council for Women, established in 1980, has provided not only a voice for women but for all employees, resulting, for example, in the establishment of a child care center.

Some companies, like Texas Instruments (TI), are making real strides in promoting women to management positions. TI currently has six women vice presidents. On the other hand, many companies and organizations (like JPL and the other NASA centers) have virtually no women in management positions. The administration and Congress could pay more attention to getting women into technical management positions in the organizations that they control. Even among congressional staffers, women in responsible positions are rare. Women engineers and scientists on the Hill are as scarce as a roc’s eggs.

As I hope I’ve shown, numerous opportunities exist for creative solutions to the problem of insufficient numbers of women engineers in the workforce. They include taking a hard look at how engineering is done in the modern world and adapting educational strategies to the new situations, paying attention to what works to educate women and applying those principles to engineering schools, and inducing or persuading private and public organizations and universities to become more woman-friendly.

Carr, D. 1996. The Fulfillment of Career Dreams at Midlife: Does It Matter for Women’s Mental Health? Paper presented to American Sociological Association Conference, New York.

Coates, J. F., and J. Jarratt. 1994. Workplace creativity. Employment Relations Today 21(1):11-22.

Hammer, M., and J. Champy. 1993. Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Peters, T. 1994. The Pursuit of WOW! Every Person’s Guide To Topsy-Turvy Times. New York: Vintage Books.

Reardon, K. K. 1995. They Don’t Get It, Do They? Boston: Little Brown and Company.

Shirley, D. 1997. Managing Creativity: A Practical Guide to Inventing, Developing, and Producing Innovative Products. Available online at [24 May 1999].

Tannen, D. 1990. You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Tidball, E., Smith, D., Tidball, C., and L. Wolf-Wendel. 1999. Taking Women Seriously: Lessons and Legacies for Educating the Majority. American Council on Education. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press.

About the Author:Donna Shirley is president of Managing Creativity, Inc., and former manager of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This article is an edited version of a speech she gave 17 May 1999 during the NAE Summit on Women in Engineering.