Women in Science and Engineering -- How do we increase the odds?

Reflection on an article about tech career advice from Google's top female executives

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This isn't a new issue. Men outnumber women in science, engineering, and technology fields. Every major engineering college and university is aggressively looking at ways of increasing the odds for women in these fields. When I was in school, I'm not sure I can say that I ever really noticed...

In all fairness, I studied engineering at the University of Illinois - a campus of over 40,000 students, of which 10,000 study engineering. In this sea of students we also boasted one of the largest student SWE chapters in the country! In fact, the last time I was at Illinois I discovered that a new organization (WECE) had been started to support and encourage women in the field of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

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So, maybe I didn't notice because our school did a good job at promoting and supporting women in these fields?

In any case, in the years after leaving school it has become blindly evident how heavily male-dominated engineering really is. Having worked in public education, it is one of my goals to help close the gap and extend opportunities that allow more women to take part in and contribute to the engineering of our future. A majority of our designs (transportation, communication, computers, etc.) are conceived, engineered, and made by men. There is no telling what ideas aren't being brought to light because we are missing out on a perspective that represents 50% of our population! There is no doubt that boys and girls learn differently, but are we, as a society, doing something that perpetuates these norms?

In this article on Gender Bias in Education, the author suggests that: Teachers socialize girls towards a feminine ideal. Girls are praised for being neat, quiet, and calm, whereas boys are encouraged to think independently, be active and speak up. Girls are socialized in schools to recognize popularity as being important, and learn that educational performance and ability are not as important.

All of this re-surfaced recently for me after coming across an interesting article written by the NY Times - Tech Career Advice from Google's Women. At one of the biggest, fastest-growing, progressive companies out there - they're trying all kinds of tactics and techniques at improving the odds -- with the goal to get their organization closer and closer to a 50/50 split between men and women.

At SparkFun, we are also driving our organization to better represent the demographics of our community. It's a vexing problem though, one for which I'm not sure we have good answers. I've had numerous conversations with friends about this. From my time in the classroom, I've noticed that girls often out perform boys early on in grade school and often into middle school. When I think back to the honors classes I taught, I often found that the girls were much stronger, more diligent, and overall, better students compared to the boys. But, something changes as they near their 11th or 12th grade year in high school. Is it a problem with the culture of engineering organizations? Or is it something that has to do with the identity of being an engineer?

Last week, our director of engineering came to me with a similar question - how can we recruit and retain more female engineers? I wish there was a simple solution to this problem. When I was working at the high school, I constantly pushed for greater opportunities that allowed girls to experience engineering and design. For starters, I think it's important to have strong female role-models demonstrate and exhibit strong leadership characteristics, despite what the current status quo might be. It's also important to provide safe / non-threatening learning environments for girls -- and, what this looks like is often a classroom devoid of boys. But after reading this article, I'm not sure if that's enough...

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  • I couldn't agree more! Statistically, girls lose interest in math and science during their tween years, which is why it's so important to get them interested before that time, and keep their interest piqued through those years. There is a wonderful site called braincake.org, which is doing great things, but their online presence is still well under the radar.

    I think that another issue is that girls/women are, either by nature or nurture, predisposed to enjoying aesthetics more than boys/men are. A case in point - I brought a friend to her first AVC this year, and she loved it. But her comment afterwards that has stuck with me was, "Why couldn't they make them look like something? I mean, something else? The car that looked like a turtle was great, but everything else just looked like what it did." I think that's an important angle in keeping girls interested in engineering - changing STEM into STEAM. I have worked hard on doing just that in my life, and have found great success in sharing that with my niece, who is 12. She is more interested in robots and "things that blow up" than in the "cuter" things to which many girls her age are drawn.

    Who knows what amazing engineering creations are hiding within the brains of women, who didn't feel comfortable pushing into the male-dominated world of engineering? I think it will benefit us all to find out.

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