Female engineers should get creative

An enhanced focus on creativity in engineering along with a reduced emphasis on classical tool collection may encourage women students to remain in the profession.

By Graham Allan, DSc, University of Washington, Seattle February 4, 2014

The November 2013 editorial “Wanted: Female Engineers” prompts this piece. I’m a chemical engineering professor, the husband of a female engineer, the father of two daughters, the grandfather of five females, and the great-grandfather of six great-granddaughters. Thus, from personal experience, the question “Are females different from males?” is easy to answer. Young or old, they most certainly are! So it should be no surprise to find that female engineers are also different from their male counterparts, before and after formal graduation. But do we want female engineers to be different?

Of course we do, because the profession needs different approaches for all problems—and women can supply these. However, it seems to be well-established that only about one-tenth of employed engineers are women and this fraction clearly should be substantially greater. Unfortunately, the dropout rate of women students in the engineering disciplines is high, and this must be reduced if the total number of female engineers in the profession is to be augmented.

To encourage women to enter and remain in this currently male-dominated profession, this gender difference must be recognized and rewarded. How is this to be done? Unfortunately, there are many adverse misconceptions out there, discouraging women, propagated by the President on down, that must be dispelled. Foremost among these is the propagandizing use of the acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), which is widely proclaimed to be the key to an engineering career in the future.

Notwithstanding this misinformation, ask yourself: Could either the President or the First Lady solve a differential equation today? Recall that when undergraduates, both on their way to law school, taking math, chemistry, or physics was mandatory. However, these are only tools. They’re very wonderful and powerful, but still just tools. Often, like the fancy screwdriver in a toolbox, they’re never used.

Ideas are actually needed in real life as well as in an engineering career. These originate from creativity. This is a mental quality that every girl and woman already possesses and only needs to be released by encouragement. An engineer, male or female, can go for years without using some of the tools learned in formal classes, but creativity is demanded every day. Here is an important example that every female engineer can contemplate without being “good” at math, physics, or chemistry: “What will the diaper look like 10 years from now?”

Stimulating questions like this are asked at the University of Washington Chemical Engineering Department in Seattle, as part of a Creativity & Innovation course that is taken by some 200 students every spring quarter. A related online offering, Creativity & Society, is now available fall, winter, and summer.

About half of the students in these classes are young women. The class requirements include keeping a “creative idea diary” where items of creativity are recorded daily. In the wrap-up class evaluations, women often state how much they have enjoyed this assignment. Comments like this do not turn up in conventional STEM class evaluations. For the midterm exam, all students must select one of their 50 or so new ideas and define the first innovation step needed to carry the idea forward to reality. An account of what happened when this was attempted is the basis for the final exam. Again, women students report especially enjoying the novel challenges of the combination of creativity and innovation in the midterm and final exams, rather than the typical regurgitation of old problems called for in standard STEM tests.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and a key player at other companies, was recently featured on CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria. In the interview, which focused on how truly creative people excel, Musk said that, in regard to creativity, “the first order of business is to try.” He went on to explain that “You have to think until your brain hurts.” Without creativity—and a good solid education in physics or engineering—new concepts will not be created.

Although only anecdotal, these observations over many years suggest that an enhanced focus on the importance of creativity in engineering together with a reduced emphasis on classical tool collection would encourage women students to remain in the profession. Why? Because exercising one’s creativity every day is exciting as well as fun. Together engineering then becomes an enjoyable career for women and a female engineer a more valuable person in any organization.

Graham Allan is a professor in the chemical engineering department and in the college of the environment of the University of Washington in Seattle. He has written more than 300 technical articles and book chapters, has been awarded about 70 patents, and consults for both industry and federal authorities.