This article by Roberta Rincon, Ph.D., SWE’s Manager of Research, was first published by the Global Policy Institute.
Women represent a small percentage of the total number of engineers in the workforce today. This is not to say that there has not been improvement. In fact, female engineers have more than doubled since 1980 – from 5% to roughly 14% of employed engineers in 2015.[i] Unfortunately, this is still vastly behind what many other STEM fields have seen with regard to gender equity improvements. For example, approximately 48% of biological and life scientists are women.[ii]
STEM is hot
STEM – and engineering in particular – is a hot area right now in the job market. The demand for highly qualified engineering graduates is intense, but supply is not meeting demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects engineering job growth of about 30% through 2022.[iii] There are approximately 2.5 entry-level job postings for every four-year STEM graduate compared to 1.1 postings for new BA graduates in non-STEM fields.[iv] Because of this need for highly-qualified STEM workers, the U.S. grants thousands of H-1B visas to help address the gap. The demand is there, but we need to prepare students to enter STEM careers.
The Academic Preparation of Girls in STEM
A student who does not take challenging math and science courses in high school will have a difficult time in a college STEM program. The good news is that girls are now earning just as many high school credits in math and science as boys.[v] Unfortunately, fewer girls are taking advanced coursework in these subjects. For example, boys are more likely to sit for Advanced Placement (AP) exams in Calculus, Physics, and Computer Science than girls, while girls are better represented in Chemistry and Environmental Science.[vi]
Research has shown that the low levels of female course taking in advanced STEM subjects may be due to a number of factors, including stereotypes and teacher attitudes towards math and science. If a teacher is not comfortable teaching the subject, whatever the reason, their lack of interest can transmit to students and make them less interested in the subject as well.[vii]
Lower levels of confidence
Another factor that can influence the level of interest in STEM is lower levels of confidence in math and science among girls. Studies have shown that when girls are less confident in these subjects, they are less inclined to engage in activities that require math and science skills or knowledge.[viii] Why girls may regard themselves as less competent in math and science is also of interest to scholars. Stereotypes abound regarding girls and boys proficiency in math – from teachers, parents, the media, peers – and they can influence a student’s confidence and beliefs in their own capabilities, regardless of whether girls have similar math achievement levels as boys.
The National Science Foundation tracks college freshmen intentions to major in certain subjects. In 2014, less than eight percent of female college freshmen expressed an intention to major in engineering, math, statistics, or computer science, as compared to almost 27 percent of male college freshmen.[ix] These low-levels of interest in pursuing a highly technical STEM major have significant impact on our ability to diversify the engineering profession.
From College to Career
Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering and computer science (ECS) has increased approximately 33% in five years. The U.S. now graduates over 160,000 engineers and computer scientists each year, increasing since 2009. However, less than 20% of ECS degrees are awarded to women.[x] This figure has remained relatively constant for the past decade.
In other words, though we are graduating more women in ECS, we are not seeing an increase in their representation in the workplace. Similar trends exist at the graduate level, with female master’s ECS degree recipients hovering at around 25% and female doctoral ECS degree recipients at approximately 22% of all ECS degrees awarded at that level.
With women receiving only one in five ECS degrees at the bachelor’s level, the percentage of degrees earned by women of color is even more dismal. The National Science Foundation indicates that approximately five percent of all degrees in computer science are earned by women of color. In engineering, less than four percent of degrees are earned by women of color.[xi]
Addressing the Issue
How can we improve the diversity within the engineering profession? One of the biggest factors impacting our ability to increase female and engineers of color is the low numbers of women and underrepresented minority high school graduates who choose to enter an engineering major in college. To encourage more women and students of color to pursue a career in engineering, we can:
- Provide a greater understanding to children and teens of what an engineer is and does,
- Address issues of bias and stereotypes that prevent girls and students of color from pursuing an engineering education,
- Focus on the beneficial impact that engineers have on the community and society, and
- Promote engineers and scientists to positions of influence to serve as role models, particular female engineers and engineers of color.
The decision to pursue a STEM career must be made early, given the academic preparation required. As we encourage women and students of color to pursue an engineering education, we must ensure that we do not sacrifice exposure to a broad education through limited exposure to the humanities.
A broader education will help our future engineers understand how people and societies work, promote innovation and creativity, and encourage critical thinking. Such knowledge is crucial in an increasing global workforce.
Roberta Rincon, Ph.D., is SWE’s Manager of Research. She oversees the organization’s research activities in areas affecting women in engineering, including in education and the workforce. Before joining SWE, Dr. Rincon spent more than 15 years in higher education policy research.
About the Society of Women Engineers
The Society of Women Engineers (SWE), founded in 1950, is a not-for-profit educational and service organization. SWE is the driving force that establishes engineering as a highly desirable career aspiration for women. SWE empowers women to succeed and advance in those aspirations and be recognized for their life changing contributions and achievements as engineers and leaders. SWE’s membership includes 35,000 women engineers. SWE works to increase the number of women employed in engineering through its pathway of support:
K-12 Outreach Programming to engage middle and high school girls in engineering, Collegiate
Leadership Programming and Scholarship Offerings to support young women in earning an engineering degree, and Professional Development Programming for women throughout their careers. A core aspect of SWE’s mission is to serve as an advocate and catalyst for change for women in engineering and technology, which includes specific programming for women throughout the United States studying to enter these professions.
 National Science Foundation. (2017). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. Table 9-2. Retrieved from https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17310/data.cfm.  Ibid.  Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program, 2012-22, special tabulations of 2012-22 Employment Projections.  Burning Glass. (2014). Real-time insight into the market for entry-level STEM jobs.  Nord, C., Roey, S., Perkins, R., Lyons, M., Lemanski, N., Brown, J., and Schuknecht, J. (2011). The Nation’s Report Card: America’s High School Graduates (NCES 2011-462). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.  The College Board. The 10th Annual Report to the Nation: Subject Supplement.