Wanted: Female engineers

The number of female engineers is low. As engineering professionals, we need to ensure we’re engaging more young women—and mentoring recent engineering graduates—to help bolster these numbers.

November 19, 2013

At the risk of sounding like a feminist from the 1960s, I’m going to diverge from the technical topics usually covered here, and discuss women in engineering. If you don’t think this is a business issue worthy of this space, please read on. If you feel this is an important topic, please read on.

An “It’s the Economy” article by Catherine Rampell in the Oct. 27 New York Times made an interesting connection between the growing number of students wanting to become forensic scientists and the TV show “CSI.” Rampell’s example discussed a young girl who liked science and watched CSI. One of the girl’s teachers suggested she attend an 8-week computer science program with Girls Who Code. After completing the course, the young lady decided to major in computer science, a previously unknown career option. I’d love to see more engineering programs like this that engage students while they’re young, and excite them about the prospect of being an engineer. Right now, women make up only 10.5% of employed engineers in the United States, according to data from the Society of Women Engineers. That number is too low, and youngsters need to be engaged earlier.

A short time after reading this article, I attended The Executives’ Club of Chicago breakfast roundtable, in which five women in high-ranking tech jobs spoke about the various aspects of being a female scientist or engineer. They cited statistics that—while I knew to be a national issue—I didn’t realize were so startling. For example, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs will grow in leaps and bounds over the next several years. According to a report by myCollegeOptions and STEMconnector, the estimated STEM workforce will grow to 8.65 million workers by 2018 (up from 7.4 million in 2012). Also interesting: “By 2018, the bulk of STEM jobs will be in computing (71%) followed by traditional engineering (16%), physical sciences (7%), life sciences (4%), and mathematics (2%).” We must encourage more women to get involved in STEM-related careers, many of which have valuable benefits beyond the relatively high compensation levels.

According to Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 from the National Science Foundation:

  • Women constituted 38% of employed individuals with a highest degree in a science and engineering (S&E) field in 2008, but their proportion is smaller in most S&E occupations.
  • From 1993 through 2008, growth occurred in both the share of workers with a highest degree in an S&E field who are women (increasing from 31% to 38%) and the share of women in S&E occupations (increasing from 21% to 26%).
  • Female scientists and engineers are concentrated in different occupations than are men, with relatively high shares of women in the social sciences (53%) and biological and medical sciences (51%), and relatively low shares in engineering (13%) and computer and mathematical sciences (26%).

Still, this growth isn’t nearly enough—we need more women in engineering. We need more female role models and mentors, and we need to remove the barriers young girls may face when considering STEM degrees so that they can be the engineering leaders of tomorrow.

And women are making more financial decisions. Refer to any financial or general news magazine, and you’ll see that women (especially those in households in which they’re the primary breadwinner) are making more financial choices and have greater buying power in everything from electronics to household supplies to NFL merchandise.

Your task? Engage and encourage more women to be engineers, and to be on your engineering team. Looking strictly at the return on investment, data compiled by research group Catalyst in 2012 showed women held 16.6% of board seats at Fortune 500 companies. Companies whose boards are made up of at least a third women make 42% more.