Gina Ryan

(WOMENSENEWS)–Astronaut Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a Space Shuttle mission, has described the crisis she faced when she wanted to study math as an adolescent. She was asked, dismissively, “Why?” She was told that if she wanted to succeed in life, she should be cute–not smart.

Many girls would be daunted and dissuaded; Collins persevered. Many years later she would testify before Congress about the advancement of women and minorities in science, engineering and technology. Collins described the challenges she encountered in trying to reconcile society’s expectations of girls and women with the recognition of her own desire to pursue science and math. She decided to be “true to herself” and study trigonometry. It was hard work, but it taught her the skills she needed to do math “in her head” in order to fly in space.

Unfortunately, she may be the exception. In fact, the numbers indicate that engineering remains a field in which women still are not fully participating.

Studies Show Barriers Remain for Women in Engineering

In 1997, the Engineering Workforce Commission of the American Association of Engineering Societies reported that, in the engineering field, women received 19 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 20 percent of master’s degrees and 12 percent of doctoral degrees. Selected by sub-field, women made up 15 percent of aeronautical/astronautical, 33 percent of chemical, 20 percent of civil, 13 percent of electrical/computer, 29 percent of industrial and 12 percent of mechanical engineers.

Some of the reasons for the attrition rate of women engineering students switching to a non-science major are: an inflexible curriculum, lack of role models, stereotyping of engineering as a male field, gender bias on the part of faculty, and challenges in obtaining academic guidance. Graduate degree attainment is influenced by the quality of faculty/student interactions, challenges of marriage and childbearing, availability of mentors, peer support and the need for financial assistance.

Lower retention rates of women in the engineering workforce illustrate an even wider gap. The Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology in a 1998 report stated that women constituted only 8.4 percent of the engineering workforce.

According to a September 2000 report by the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, barriers to higher retention rates include the absence of female role models, isolation, stereotypes and style differences, exclusion from informal networks, scarcity of mentors, lack of general management experience and challenges in achieving work-life balance.

Educators, parents, political leaders and the engineering profession can do much to improve these statistics.

Between 9 and 11, Girls Need Encouragement in Math, Sciences

Today girls need to know that a well-rounded and satisfying life can include math, science and technology, and they need to be taught this from an early age. Girl toddlers need to be given the chance to use building blocks and play with trucks and creative toys that don’t shortchange their range of talents. Inclusive play and appropriate expectations should be a conscious part of developmental guidance so that girls do consider engineering as a career and successfully pursue engineering studies.

Ryan Ann Hunter has written several books for youngsters that should be thrilling for girls as well as boys. Published by Holiday House, New York, they are: “Into the Sky,” about skyscrapers, “Cross a Bridge” and “Dig a Tunnel.” Another resource that can broaden the vistas of girls to include engineering is the “Building Big” series produced by public television station WGBH in Boston in conjunction with the American Society of Civil Engineers. The five-part series includes segments on bridges, domes, skyscrapers, dams, tunnels and other structures, and is accompanied by an activity book appropriate for fifth- through eighth-graders.

Girls need science and math teachers who are sensitive to the way girls learn. Girls need hands-on activities and cooperative learning by teams or groups, in an atmosphere in which teachers are aware of gender bias and reach out to girls who may be too shy to raise their hands or assert themselves. The best teachers encourage girls to hang in there. The American Association of University Women has studied girls’ needs in education. Guidance counselors must understand that engineering is not the male bastion that it once was, and that it is a cutting-edge intellectual profession with wonderful options for women.

The Girl Scouts last spring hosted a series of focus groups on how to attract girls to science and math. They invited representatives of Congress, industry, academia and the nonprofit sector. The consensus was that girls must be targeted and encouraged between the ages of 9 and 11, a key period, if they are to be drawn into math and science. Later is too late.

Society of Women Engineers Actively Recruiting Girls

The Society of Women Engineers has been successfully encouraging girls and women to pursue careers in engineering since the organization was founded in 1950. What started as a handful of women engineers from New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., has grown to an association of 15,000 professional engineers and engineering students in 22 countries. These women undertake outreach activities and professional development programs in 85 metropolitan areas and on 300 university campuses.

Members of the Society of Women Engineers donate their time and talent to serve as role models at school career days; they sponsor and take part in science fairs, judge “model city” competitions, and foster programs like “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” during National Engineers Week every February. They also volunteer as online e-mentors to junior high and high school girls and sponsor scholarships to help young women attend engineering schools.

Young women in student sections of the Society of Women Engineers form study groups to encourage each other in academic atmospheres where typically only 16 percent to 18 percent of the student body is composed of women, and where women deans–let alone women faculty–are a rarity.

So what does it take to make a girl consider an engineering career, complete her studies and successfully compete in the engineering workplace? It requires parents, teachers, supporters and employers who know that it takes more than being cute to be successful and that, as in the case of astronaut Eileen Collins, the sky’s the limit.

Gina Ryan is executive director and chief executive officer of the Society of Women Engineers.

For more information:

Society of Women Engineers:

Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology:

Report: “Land of Plenty: Diversity as America’s Competitive Edge in Science, Engineering and Technology,” Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology: