By Rebecca Harshbarger
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Science schools may be increasing their female admissions, but female engineers and engineering students are still hard to find. A global online event today marks a fifth annual effort to build women's ranks.
(WOMENSENEWS)--When Grace Lin was a very small girl, she thought of engineering as a field dominated by men such as her father, who designed engines for airplanes.
Her father's work--creating physical objects that allowed people to fly through the sky--seemed magical to Lin and captured her own imagination.
And as she grew up her father encouraged her to consider an engineering degree, saying the critical thinking and reasoning skills attained from engineering could be applied to anything.
Between 2003 and 2007 she studied chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
By then the school was well on its way to achieving the gender parity in admissions that it almost reached last year. But in engineering classes, it was a different story.
"In some classes, the gender ratio would be 80-20, men to women," says Lin, 23, who now works as a program manager for a software company in Madison, Wis. "Sometimes, it would be four or five guys to one female student."
Lin joined a women's engineering group, MIT Women's Initiative, and began traveling to high schools in California and Washington, D.C., to challenge stereotypes that restricted popular perception of engineers to guys with pocket protectors. And they'd teach girls how to build mini-bridges in a hands-on activity.
Statistics from 2005--the latest available--suggest such advocacy still has a way to go.
Fewer than 10 percent of U.S. engineers are women, and only 1 in 5 college engineering students are female, according to a 2005 survey by the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project, an initiative led by a coalition of national engineering associations.
On Wednesday, a major online advocacy effort will try to chip away at the reality underlying the statistics.
This year's "Global Marathon for, by and About Women in Engineering," on March 11, beginning at noon, EDT, is hosted by the National Engineer's Week Foundation, an organization in Alexandria , Va., that celebrates engineering as a dynamic profession. This year, the organization hopes the event will provide networking opportunities to its female participants and a chance to see and appreciate each other's work.
The event is designed as a virtual town hall meeting that goes on longer than most.
For 24 hours, conversations about opportunities for women in engineering will stream across the globe through Web casts--online video sessions--as well as teleconference calls that will be stored on the Global Marathon Web site.
"Women engineers simply want more women working to contribute to their countries' economy and quality of life," said Teresa Schofield, an engineer at the London-based Institute of Engineering and Technology, who is serving as a regional leader for the marathon's European events.
The conference hopes to target a wide range of ages, from girls considering studying engineering in college, to professionals in the field.
The National Engineer's Week Foundation hopes the event helps dispel myths that might restrain women from choosing math, science and technology fields, and address issues such as the low retention rates of female students in engineering programs.
Participants will be encouraged to describe a scientific or engineering dream in 40 words or less and post entries on the marathon Web site. Winners will be picked for each region of the globe, with participants voting for their favorites.
The need for female engineers is more important than ever, with technical innovations increasingly needed to counter global warming through energy-efficient vehicles, buildings and farms. Engineers are also needed to help the growing global population sustain and manage increasingly precious water, land and other ecological resources.
"If only 3 percent of the world's scientists and engineers are female, then given all the challenges the world faces at present--which we hope technology and innovation will solve--do we believe men have 97 percent of the answers?" Schofield said in an e-mail interview.
The marathon's sessions on career possibilities for women in science, engineering, and technology will be streaming live from six continents, with hosting points in cities such as New York, Mexico City, Shanghai, Bangalore, Sao Paolo and London.
With the global economy shedding jobs around the world, organizers think a field known for creative and innovative work, as well as strong salaries and benefits, might be more attractive to both female and male students considering engineering programs.
Rebecca Harshbarger is a reporter for Women's eNews and is based in New York City.
National Engineer's Week Foundation
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