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Women in Engineering

Highwaystarz-Photography/iStock

During a visit last summer, Kendahl, our 16-year-old granddaughter, shared with my wife and me her interest in pursuing a career in engineering. Unfortunately, she had heard a female role model state engineering is not an appropriate career for a woman.

Women have been contributing to engineering since long before it was recognized as a learned profession. In fact, a woman—Hypatia of Alexandria—generally is credited with inventing the hydrometer in the late fourth or early fifth century, an extraordinary engineering accomplishment at the time. Women also are recognized for such inventions as the circular saw (Tabitha Babbit); improved bridge foundations, barnacle prevention, and improved caulking for ship hulls, a longer-burning candlestick holder, the Cook’s Comforter fire hood, and a bed with built-in exercise equipment (Sarah Guppy, a prolific inventor and an accomplished author of children’s books); braiding and straw weaving for hat making (Betsy Metcalf and Mary Kies, respectively); the first computer (Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, who collaborated with Charles Babbage on the “analytical engine”); electric arc lighting (Hertha Marks Ayrton); the zig-zag sewing machine (Helen Augusta Blanchard, a prolific inventor with 28 patents); the signal flare (Martha Coston); ventilation, air conditioning, lighting, and seating for railroad cars (Olive Dennis); smoke- and noise-pollution-reduction systems (Mary Walton); and the windshield wiper (Mary Anderson). And we shouldn’t forget Grace Murray Hopper, the developer of the first computer programming language compiler and a true engineering hero, about whom I posted in July 2014.

Since formal engineering curricula first became commonplace in the early 20th century, women have gone from being recognized as curiosities—if at all—to, by 2011, representing 19 percent of engineering undergraduate students, according to the Engineering Workforce Commission. Women also make up nearly a quarter of graduate engineering students, according to the National Science Foundation. And yet the U.S. Census Bureau reported that, in 2009, although women represented approximately 48 percent of the U.S. workforce, only one of every seven working engineers was a woman. So, women are clearly underrepresented in engineering—and, in fact, all STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields—in spite of increasing college enrollments. This begs the question why, to which several theories have been advanced. These include explicit and implicit discrimination, stereotyping, and the “glass ceiling” effect (in engineering and science education, women hold almost 50 percent of non-tenure-track lecturer and instructor jobs, but make up only 10 percent of tenured or tenure-track professors, suggesting an obvious lack of women at the higher levels of the profession). Of course, female role models telling younger women not to become engineers certainly doesn’t help.

On the plus side, although female college graduates generally earn less than their male counterparts, there is no difference between the starting salaries of men and women in several engineering disciplines. In fact, according to PayScale, female computer-systems engineers and mechanical engineers were paid slightly more than their male counterparts, while among electrical engineers pay was dead even. So, the prospects for women in mechanical, electrical, and plumbing firms should be excellent, especially given that 2015 was a record year for those firms, and projections are for 2016 to be even better. That means more competition—pre-recession levels, in fact—for talent, with no end in sight, and more opportunity for millennials to participate in ownership-transition programs.

For a woman with good math and science skills and a natural curiosity (attributes Kendahl clearly has demonstrated), engineering is a great field, especially now. Go for it!

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