Engineering Equality Still A Long Way Off

The engineering sector needs to re-evaluate its priorities if it wishes to capitalize on female engineering talent.

Despite both men and women exhibiting equal levels of GCSE physics and science success, over the last 25 years, only a 5th of A-level Physics students have been female. In the USA, a Congressional Joint Economic Committee Report found that only 14% of engineers in the US are women and 80% of US engineering bachelor degrees are given to men.

Is this the 21st Century or the 1950’s? It is simply incomprehensible such gaping gender disparity is still the norm today. Fundamental change is required in engineering if we are ever to see similar staffing and job satisfaction levels between the sexes.

Innovation Director, Lina Nilsson, from The Blum Center for Developing Economics at the University of California, Berkeley believes the major reason for the lack of female engineers (aside from sexism) is pretty straightforward. It comes down to the simple difference in women’s career priorities compared to those of men.  “Women seem to be drawn to engineering projects that attempt to achieve societal good. If the work itself is made more societally meaningful, women will enrol in droves”, said Ms Nilsson. 

Ms Nilsson came to this realisation in late 2014 after she noticed that 50% of engineering students enrolled in UC Berkeley’s new Ph. D. minor in Development Engineering were women. This degree focuses on concocting and designing solutions for low-income communities such as clean drinking water facilities, medical diagnostic equipment, local manufacturing initiatives and much more. For a freshly minted engineering degree to achieve 50% equal gender representation within a year is simply unheard of.

Doing Things Differently…

Intel has plugged $300 million into a Diversity Commitment Initiative in an aim to attract more women and ethnic minorities by 2020. Other American universities and companies have also begun similar schemes.

Arizona State University meanwhile, have twice as many females enrolled in its humanitarian engineering courses compared to its traditional engineering degrees.

One of the few engineering degrees with higher levels of female enrolment is prestigious M.I.T’s interdisciplinary D-Lab, which consists of 73% female students. D-Lab is concerned with creating technologies that improve the lives of people living in poverty.

Engineering for the Betterment of Society

Joanne McGrath Cohoon, The University of Virginia’s Associate Professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society believes more equal gender representation is integral.  “We cannot afford to lose anyone with the technical skills to create a sustainable future, improve health, build our cyber and physical infrastructure, and enhance personal and societal security. A diverse set of minds needs to tackle those problems. But we are largely missing out on women's intelligence, creativity, and values in solving the problems we all face.”

Ms Nilsson is quick to stress that these innovative engineering degrees are designed to attract people interested in societal change; they are not specifically targeting women and perhaps that’s exactly why they’re proving so popular.

“It may be about reframing the goals of engineering research and curriculums to be more relevant to societal needs. It is not just about gender equity, it is about doing better engineering for us all.”

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