Encouraging Girls to Enter Engineering

Feb. 7, 2008
Claiming the workforce faces a profound lack of women engineers, the National Engineers Week Foundation wants the professional community to discard myths about what’s holding girls from pursuing engineering.

So it’s sponsoring Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, slated for Thursday, Feb. 21, as part of Engineers Week 2008, Feb. 17 to 23.

“Girl Day,” as it’s known among engineers, is the only outreach of its kind aimed at and organized by a single profession. On Feb. 21 and in programs throughout the year, women engineers and their male counterparts will reach as many as 1 million girls with workshops, tours, online discussions, and a host of hands-on activities that showcase engineering as an important career option for everyone.

Currently only 20% of engineering undergraduates are women. And only 10% of the engineering workforce are women. For years, false notions of girls’ innate inability in math, lack of science preparation in high school, and assumptions about the effects of historical and institutional discrimination, have been offered as causes for the startling disproportion.

Recent surveys, however, refute most of those theories, including those that question girls’ academic readiness to study engineering when they leave high school. Girls and boys take requisite courses at approximately the same rate, with girls’ enrollment often exceeding that of boys. While 60% of boys take Algebra II, for example, the enrollment rate for girls is 64%. Similarly, 94% of girls and 91% of boys take biology while 64% of girls and 57% of boys take chemistry. In physics, where boys’ enrollment exceeds girls, the rate is 26% for girls and 32% for boys. Still, less than 2% of high-school graduates will earn engineering degrees in college.

Further, assertions about institutionalized discrimination — certainly a major factor historically — seem undercut compared to professions such as medicine and law that also were largely bastions of men a generation ago. Yet now a majority of women pursue those degrees.

Instead, experts contend that the major culprit is a perception among girls and the people who influence them, including teachers, parents, peers, and the media.

In short, girls must perceive they can be engineers before they can be engineers. According to the National Engineers Week Foundation, nothing conveys that message as effectively as mentors and role models, and programs such as Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, now in its 8th year.

A 2005 Extraordinary Women Engineers Project (EWEP) study found that exposure to role models is essential to drawing young women into the profession. Highschool girls react positively to firstperson stories about how engineering “makes a difference” and offers a monetarily and personally rewarding career. The study also notes that because few of their influencers — whether it’s a parent, a favorite teacher, or MTV — understand or even have knowledge of engineering, chances are it’s not on the student’s radar. In other words, if a girl hears about engineering, most likely an engineer is the one who told her.

“There are countless television shows featuring doctors, lawyers, police, and other professions, so a child readily grasps that these may be career paths,” explains Terry Lincoln, Global Signature Programs Manager at Agilent Technologies. “Unless we directly reach these girls with engineering, they won’t get it, and we will miss up to half of all potential engineers.”

Girl Day is also part of the foundation’s many diversification efforts, including the recent founding of the Engineers Week Diversity Council, a coalition of businesses, professional societies, and academic and advocacy organizations committed to boosting underrepresented minorities in engineering. The Council, headed by the foundation, IBM, and 13 Founding Partner organizations, met for the first time in Washington in October.

More than 100 corporations, organizations, government agencies, and schools pulled together for Girl Day 2007. ExxonMobil hosted middle-school girls at its Houston and San Juan, Puerto Rico, facilities. Young women were invited to experience engineering first-hand at Argonne National Lab in Illinois, the Port Authority of New Jersey and New York, and Los Alamos Labs in New Mexico. Universities such as Purdue, Penn State, Arizona State, and California State at Chico introduced middle and high-school girls to engineering. The National Coalition of Girls Schools sent copies of the EWEP book, “Changing Our World, True Stories of Women Engineers,” to member schools with tips on getting involved in Girl Day. Visit community.machinedesign.com/blogs/careertalk/ for more information about Girl Day and other projects to promote women in engineering.

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