Beating the Odds: Helping Girls Become Engineers

As classes begin at colleges and universities throughout the country, the odds of finding a female engineering student is slim. Come next summer, the odds of finding a graduating female engineering student is even slimmer.

Consider these statistics, says Catherine Didion, director of the National Research Council’s Committee on Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine:

  • More than 50 percent of all students going into four-year colleges are women.
  • But only 3 percent of all first-year students are women majoring in engineering.
  •  Only 1 percent of  all graduates who receive their four-year degree are women engineering majors.

Pretty sad statistics, wouldn’t you say? But they go a long way in explaining why so few women work in technology. To trace the kernel of this conundrum, you need to go back — way back.

Starting with STEM and Mom

The No. 1 influence for young girls on choosing their career is mom, says Didion. This influence becomes very important in the middle school years, when students begin taking elective courses and are put onto math tracks that will affect the level of courses they’ll be able to take in high school and college.

“If you allow your child to remain in general math in middle school and don’t push them to take Algebra 1, it restricts the choices they’ll have in high school for more advanced math courses,” says Didion. It’s advanced math courses like calculus that set girls up for entry into college-level science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs later on.

High School’s Harsh Realities

While the number of girls and boys taking Algebra 1 before entering high school is improving, it’s still far from the majority. In 2009, roughly a quarter of high school graduates had taken the class before entering high school, according to the National Science Foundation’s Science & Engineering Indicators 2012 report.

Meanwhile, negative stereotypes about the way girls perform in STEM classes can lower their aspirations for science and engineering careers, according to a research report by the American Association of University Women.

The report also found that girls under value their mathematical skills even though, in reality, their performance is on par with boys’. This lack of self-confidence may stem from their holding themselves to a higher standard.

The AAUW’s report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, also notes:

When test administrators tell students that girls and boys are equally capable in math, however, the difference in performance essentially disappears, illustrating that changes in the learning environment can improve girls’ achievements in math.

Even though these girls may realize they’re good in math, they still may not select a career in engineering.

“Engineering ranks at the bottom as a career path,” Didion says. “Many girls say they didn’t understand what they could do with an engineering career. We find that many of them want a career that gives back to society, like in medicine or education. They don’t realize that an engineering career can also give back.”

As a result, the National Academy of Engineering operates the website called Engineer Your Life, which aims to educate high school girls about engineering and answer their questions.  A companion site, EngineerGirl, is aimed at middle school students.

In addition, Didion’s organization provides online information about engineering careers for women and has a cadre of members ready to answer questions that girls post about engineering occupations and colleges where they can get a degree. Says Didion: “The girls are looking for someone they can connect with and have as a role model.

Related Links

Image: Close Up of Girl on Computer Laptop from Bigstock

7 Responses to “Beating the Odds: Helping Girls Become Engineers”

  1. It starts back at the toddler stage i.e. 1.5 years to 4.0 years.
    STOP buying girls those silly dolls and other pink junk!!
    Buy them toy trucks. As they get older buy them more puzzles, and tinkertoys and erector sets.
    instead of toy kitchen sets, and life like dolls. When they’re 8 – 12 years old fathers teach your girls about automotive maintenance. Now will this mean that every girl that goes thru this will become an engineer?; No, however it will ‘bring out’ the engineer or scientist in those girls who are pre-deposed to those fields.

    • Wrong wrong wrong. Just because a girl likes pink and dolls does not mean they won’t bring out the engineer or scientist. This is just part of the problem! I am a woman and an engineer and I can say I do not find any interest in automotive maintenance maybe we should make little girls feel it is ok to like whatever they like naturally pink, brown, green, blue whatever as well as science and math. The perception that all engineering woman have to be frumpy and masculine is a thing of the past.

  2. The statistics at the head of the article look flawed or mis-stated. Perhaps women engineering students only make up 3% of the undergrad population, but engineering students overall are only a small proportion of college majors. And I seriously doubt that 99% of the female engineering students fail to complete their degree.

    In my experience, female students make up 20 to 25% of our engineering undergrad population, which would be over 1,000 females. And almost all of them finish their degrees successfully. Obviously there is still much to be done to encourage more women to pursue engineering, but I wouldn’t say the odds of finding one are slim!

    • Dawn Kawamoto

      Hi Profbillanderson,

      Thanks for pointing out the statistics I listed were not as clear as I thought when writing them up. The third bullet point has been recast and hopefully provides more clarity: Only 1 percent of *all graduates* who receive their four-year degree are women engineering majors.

      It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this 1 percent statistic, when contrasted with the second bullet point that notes: 3 percent of all first-year students are women majoring in engineering.

      You are fortunate that almost all of the female students who entered your college as an engineering major stayed with the program for the entire four years. If you have a moment, it may be helpful to hear about your retention efforts.

      Take care, Dawn

      • Thanks, that clarifies it.

        I wasn’t aware of a female engineering student retention problem, and we don’t really have a a big effort focused on it. Possibly it’s more of a U.S. specific issue? Canadian engineering program admission requirements usually include a lot of math and science courses in senior year high school (somewhat different from U.S. engineering admissions). So maybe a lot of the female student self-selection has occured beforehand, and the ones that choose engineering in Canada tend to be more committed from the start. Just a theory.

        Our emphasis has been on encouraging an interest in applied math and science for girls in elementary and high school, with the hope that more will choose to pursue engineering when the time comes.

  3. Connie Buskness

    As a female chemical engineer, I am excited to see the focus on attracting more girls into science and math. My high school physics teacher suggested I study engineering, and then I attended a conference hosted by the Society of Women Engineers at Texas A&M for high school students in 1993. Those two factors combined with a strong math and science background led me to pursue engineering.

    I’ve been working for over 10 years in manufacturing, and I love solving problems and improving products that are essential for society.

    Thank you for drawing attention to the issue!

  4. It’s because we males are simply trying to keep women down. There, I said it. You don’t know this, but, I really wanted to be a kindergarten teacher or a nurse, but, those pesky females kept me down. So, for the past 30 years I’ve slaved away in the ‘bit mines’ with focused single minded attention for hours on end with no personal interaction with other humans on many days. It’s a field that suits me well, but, I don’t think many women would enjoy the social isolation as part of their everyday work experience. So, maybe Lawrence Summers of Harvard was on to something, eh?
    I do not believe the AAUW’s spin that women want a career that gives back to society(commie/socialist talk if you ask me). Many want a career that allows them a work schedule which is conducive to raising a family, because let’s face it, women have babies(I don’t envy that part o.k., whew!).
    Well, this wasn’t a very PC post…