Where Are All the Female Engineers?

During the summer of 2022, I interned for the Division of Project Management in the 2nd District of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). The first thing that struck me on my first day at Caltrans: of the ten project managers (each of whom is required to be a registered Professional Engineer in the state of California), only one was a woman. By contrast, every member of the Project Management support staff, including assistants, budgetary analysts, and an office manager, were women. 

While I was there, the department was in the process of hiring new project managers and new project assistants. The hiring committee interviewed men and women for both positions. But while about ten men applied for the project manager position, only two women applied. Similarly, while five or six women applied for the assistant position, only one man applied. 

Why did so few men apply for the support position? And, more importantly, why did so few women apply for the engineering position? Where were all the female engineers?

The pattern I observed last summer is not unique to the Project Management department in Caltrans District 2. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that, in 2019, women made up nearly half of the workforce in the United States (48%) but held only 27% of STEM positions. While women accounted for 47% of the workforce in mathematics occupations and 45% of the workforce in life and physical science careers, women only made up about 25% of the nation’s computer workers, and 15% of engineers.[1] This is especially problematic because the computer science and engineering sectors account for some of the highest-paid and fastest-growing jobs in the world economy.[2] In the U.K., 35% of STEM students in higher education are women, but women only account for 37% of mathematics students, 39% of physical science students, 19% of computer science students and 19% of engineering students.[3] This trend is mirrored in countries around the world. In many regions, women make up an even smaller percentage of STEM workers.

Where are all the women in STEM?

Starting in early childhood, the kinds of activities that boys are socialized to participate in, like playing video games or playing with LEGOs, foster better spatial skills than the kinds of activities girls are socialized to participate in. Spatial intelligence – the ability to visualize shapes and understand the relationships between objects – is often considered to be important for success in engineering and other STEM fields, but men consistently demonstrate better spatial skills than women.[4] While it was generally accepted in the past that spatial skills are innate, recent research indicates that spatial skills are developed.[5] Thus, parents and teachers can encourage young girls to play with toys and participate in activities that support the growth of spatial intelligence. Women who are interested in STEM can improve their spatial intelligence by enrolling in a spatial skills course. Such courses have proven highly effective: though women typically score much lower than men on spatial intelligence assessments, there is no significant gender difference in spatial assessment scores after women have taken a spatial skills course.[6] Unfortunately, spatial skills courses are few and far between.

From childhood, many girls face negative stereotypes that tell them they are not as good at math and science as their male peers. The stereotype that boys are better than girls at math and science can lead girls to underestimate their abilities. This often results in lower test scores, even though girls consistently have higher average GPAs than boys and represent a greater proportion of students who take AP and honors courses in science and math.[7] Often, girls assess their abilities as lower than boys with similar achievements do. Many girls hold themselves to a higher standard than their male counterparts, because many believe they have to be exceptional to succeed in male-dominated fields like engineering and computer science. This pressure can reduce girls’ interest in STEM and steer them away from pursuing careers in science and math.[8]

When women major in STEM fields in college, they often face more obstacles to success than their male peers. While preparing to write this post, I spoke to female friends from different universities who are majoring in STEM about their experiences thus far. They noted that women are significantly underrepresented in all of their STEM classes, especially in more advanced courses. One of my friends explained that she was the only woman in one of her core major classes. They noted that they have few female role models, as there are very few female professors in the science, math, and engineering departments at their universities. 

Each of my friends highlighted how their voices are diminished in the classroom and while doing group work. One noted: “Often guys in my classes think that I don’t know what I’m doing or ignore my ideas. I’ve worked on multiple group projects where guys take the lead and push me aside, even when I’m correct and they’re not.” Another friend said, “Group work in classes can be hard because the guys don’t listen to you…[I]t makes discussing stuff really hard. It’s a completely different dynamic when there is at least one other girl in the group, and it really helps but usually because of the ratio there isn’t.” A third friend noted, “I’ve noticed that women tend to talk less in class, even after you take into account the gender ratios. I think it’s because it’s extra intimidating to speak up when you are the minority.”

The lack of female role models, the tendency to push female voices to the side (whether intentionally or inadvertently), and few female peers creates a feedback loop that continues to push women away from STEM majors. But even when women do obtain degrees in STEM disciplines and make it to the workforce, they continue to face obstacles that discourage retention rates. Female scientists and engineers are moderately well-represented in lower-level positions; however, the retention rate is low, with as many as fifty percent of women quitting their jobs by mid-career.[9]

One obstacle for women in STEM is the double bind that women in traditionally male-dominated fields face. Women are judged to be less competent than their male colleagues unless they are very successful, very confident (but not arrogant), and likable (but not a pushover).[10] This tightrope that female women in STEM must walk serves to further discourage women from continuing in their fields. Another obstacle faced by women in STEM is that childcare responsibilities continue to disproportionately fall on the shoulders of women, which may affect both female productivity and retention. This is especially glaring in STEM fields, where women are more likely to have a partner who is also in STEM. In such situations, the man’s career is often prioritized.[11]

Clearly there are many reasons why women are underrepresented in STEM. However, it is possible to increase female representation in science, math, engineering, and related disciplines. From childhood, parents and teachers can encourage both boys and girls to participate in activities which encourage spatial intelligence. Parents and teachers can create an environment where boys and girls are reminded often that they are equally capable in math and science, which will reduce negative stereotypes and encourage girls to assess their skills more accurately. Girls can be exposed from a young age to positive role models in STEM fields and to the benefits of a career in STEM. University science and math departments, as well as firms in traditionally male-dominated fields, can work to improve retention by providing resources and role models to their female students and employees, thereby fostering a community of support.

I have hope that things are changing in STEM fields. In fact, two of my closest female friends are pursuing degrees in civil engineering, so perhaps by the time we graduate college and enter the workforce, there will be more women working as professional engineers in the Division of Project Management division in the 2nd District of Caltrans, and in all STEM disciplines. But we cannot expect that it will just happen. Encouraging more women to pursue STEM careers will require active effort and commitment. Otherwise, female participation in STEM will stagnate, and as a society, we cannot afford the loss of creativity and innovation which will result.

By AMC

References:

[1]  Martinez, A. and Christnacht, C. (2021) Women are nearly half of U.S. workforce but only 27% of STEM workers, U.S. Census Bureau. Available at: https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/01/women-making-gains-in-stem-occupations-but-still-underrepresented.html

[2] The STEM gap: Women and girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (2022) AAUW. American Association of University Women. Available at: https://www.aauw.org/resources/research/the-stem-gap/

[3] Women in STEM statistics (2022) STEM Women. Available at: https://www.stemwomen.com/women-in-stem-percentages-of-women-in-stem-statistics#:~:text=Women%20now%20make%20up%2046%25%20of%20the%20total%20science%20professional%20workforce.

[4] Hill, C., Corbett, C. and St. Rose, A. (2010) “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” American Association of University Women. Available at: https://www.aauw.org/app/uploads/2020/03/why-so-few-research.pdf

[5]  Clark, C. (2019) Gender gap in spatial reasoning starts in elementary school, meta-analysis finds: Emory University: Atlanta ga, Emory News Center. Emory University. Available at: https://news.emory.edu/stories/2019/04/esc_gender_gap_spatial_reasoning/campus.html

[6] Hill, C., Corbett, C. and St. Rose, A. (2010) “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” American Association of University Women. Available at: https://www.aauw.org/app/uploads/2020/03/why-so-few-research.pdf

[7] Osborn, S. (2019) How the SAT cripples girls’ scores, The Writing Center of Princeton. Available at: https://writingcenterofprinceton.com/sat-cripples-girls-test-scores/

[8] Hill, C., Corbett, C. and St. Rose, A. (2010) “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” American Association of University Women. Available at: https://www.aauw.org/app/uploads/2020/03/why-so-few-research.pdf

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

Images:

Hoxha, Teuta. “Did You Know Female Engineers Are More Common in Muslim Countries Than in the United States ?” MVSLIM, 27 Oct. 2016, mvslim.com/female-engineers-muslim-countries-us.

TZA. “At The Factory: Female Mechanical Engineer Designs 3D Engine on Her Personal Computer, Male Automation Engineer Uses Laptop for Programming Robotic Arm.” TZA, 11 May 2020, www.tza.com/leveraging-technology-for-labor-planning/at-the-factory-female-mechanical-engineer-designs-3d-engine-on-her-personal-computer-male-automation-engineer-uses-laptop-for-programming-robotic-arm.

 

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