In my graduating class of 28 engineers, only 2 were women. It's not a pretty statistic. These are the perceptions that are keeping girls from pursuing careers in engineering, and they shouldn't be believed.
Myth 1: Engineers need to be really good at math
Myth 2: Engineers are anti-social
Myth 3: Careers in engineering are not accessible to women
In college, I studied with many distinctly typical men who earned engineering degrees. They weren't extraordinarily smart, or unusually determined. They were regular guys who somewhere along the line decided that engineering sounded like a nice career. In industry, I met many engineers who didn't go to college, but worked their way up from the factory floor. They were everyday, normal men who decided to apply for engineering positions. They may have never learned how to integrate a function or draw a circuit diagram, but they are good at solving problems. That is all an engineer really is, a good problem solver.
Recently, I spoke to a group of middle school students about what engineering is and what is needed to pursue a career in engineering. I spent a half an hour showing them the cool parts I get to work on, including those into which I have welded pink sparkly sequins (because I could), telling them about the places I've travelled for work (as far as India), about how much of my job is dependent on the ability to communicate clearly. At the end came the inevitable question, "But, you have to be good at math, right?"
I have met engineers who spend all day going over terribly complex differential equations; they're called Professors. Every engineer I have met in industry freely admits that he or she is not as good at math as he or she wishes to be. And we don't use math all that much. Honestly, a waitress probably uses more math than I do, and she doesn't get to carry around a calculator (I do).
I work for an engineering consulting firm, full of engineers. Of the sixty-five of my coworkers who actually have the word engineer in their job title, 40% are extroverted (identified via Myers-Briggs testing). Out of the engineering managers and sales engineers, 67% are extroverted. Of the people who take the Myers-Briggs test, 50% score as extroverted on average, regardless of age, gender, or career. Based on my study sample, engineers are not statistically more introverted.
On a personal level, the ability to relate to people is actually a critical function of my job. There may be some engineers who can hide in a cubicle or work alone in a lab all day, but I haven't met very many. Teamwork is vitally important when solving problems and that is the core role of an engineer.
Outside of work, the engineers I know have many social hobbies such as participating in triathlons, going on faith missions, competing in motor sports, ballroom and salsa dancing. Some even moonlight as successful musicians. I have lunch, and sometimes dinner, with my coworkers; go to parties and picnics with them. Engineers are social people.
In my experience, this has not been true. While the world of engineering may be full of men, there is definitely a place waiting for women. It's true, in my graduating class of twenty-eight engineers, just two were women. I had two summer engineering internships, and I was the only female engineer at both companies. In my first real engineering job, I was the only woman and, incidentally, the youngest by fifteen years.
Yet, in all these classes and companies, I was welcomed. My opinion was valued and respected. Though I have met some unpleasant personalities, I have no reason to believe that they are any more prevalent in engineering than in any other profession. In fact, my few years spent in customer service as a teenager exposed me to much more unpleasant and degrading treatment than I have ever received in my engineering career.
There is a concern, unique to women, that having a successful engineering career may come at the cost of having a successful family. I say this isn't so. I am a mother with two small children (6 months and 3 years) and my husband works as well. I took almost three months of maternity leave for each child, and suffered no negative consequence to my career. In fact, while pregnant with my second child, I was recruited for a better paying job. I work forty hours a week on average, and my travel is infrequent. I can leave work when my kids are sick, and there is no negative feedback regarding my job performance. Many of my male coworkers have wives who also work, and they too take personal time to tend to their families. I have encountered no judgment from coworkers or managers that being a mother makes me a less valued employee or less likely to succeed. However, I see this perception in the media, especially social media, all the time.
Women in engineering may be rare, but it doesn't take a rare woman to be an engineer. Engineering is full of ordinary men and women who excel through persistence, thoughtfulness and creativity. We love engineering because it is relevant, important and interesting. Any girl can be an engineer if that is what she wants, even if she doesn't love math, likes to socialize, and dreams of having a family. All it takes is a girl who wants to solve problems.
EWI, a non-profit, is the leading engineering and technology organization in North America dedicated to advanced materials joining and allied manufacturing technologies.