Women in engineering gaining slowly, but steadily

Why aren't there more women in engineering? It might seem amazing now, but before Congress passed Title IX in 1972 requiring equal educational opportunities for men and women, many female high school students were not allowed to take auto mechanics, drafting, mechanical design, and other classes.


Why aren't there more women in engineering? It might seem amazing now, but before Congress passed Title IX in 1972 requiring equal educational opportunities for men and women, many female high school students were not allowed to take auto mechanics, drafting, mechanical design, and other classes. Title IX was the first all-inclusive federal law banning discrimination based on sex in educational institutions, programs, and activities receiving federal funds.

Thanks at least partly to Title IX, "The number of women studying engineering increased dramatically after 1974. Undergraduate women, who made up less than 5% of the nation's engineering student population in 1974, increased to over 18% in 1993," says Jill Tietjen, P.E. and director of the Women in Engineering Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder (UCB). She adds the number of female engineering students shot up to 15% in 1984, though gains have been smaller since then. In the workforce, 10% of engineers are women, she says.

Women's presence grows

While federal legislation aided previous gains by women engineers, exponential technological changes in many engineering-related industries may help propel them even further in the future. "Businesses dealing with these forces are making it easier for women and minorities to be a part of the changes," says T. Meredith Ross, P.E. and business process manager for the Applied Strategic Knowledge System division of Applied Materials (Santa Clara, Calif.)

Ms. Ross explains that in process control, for example, the ability to control and monitor processes has changed more than the actual processes. Also, historically mechanical systems now have more electronics. "As you bring in the electronics, you bring in a new industry, which mandates change. As an aside, the electronics industry has more women and minorities than the traditional engineering industries, and this leads to more visibility and acceptance of women engineers," adds Ms. Ross.

In the beginning, women were more likely to study civil engineering. Now, they also have a presence in industrial engineering and even in more diverse areas, such as control engineering. "Twenty years ago there really weren't any female role models in engineering. Now that there are some, engineering will become a more viable option to female students," says Ms. Ross, whose background is in control engineering.

Though some obstacles facing women engineers are being overcome, others still remain. Women in Technology International (Sherman Oaks, Calif.) reports that, "Women represent a high percentage of the science and technology workforce, but only 2% are executives…Yet more women than ever before are interested in technology careers…"

Dr. Anita Borg, founding director and president of the Institute for Women and Technology (Palo Alto, Calif.) and a computer scientist with Xerox Corp., adds that, "Women are still underepresented. This could become a serious problem in all engineering, but especially in information technology (IT). IT will have a huge impact on our future, politically, economically, and even in our daily lives. Because of this, we can't afford to have a very small and unrepresentative slice of the population determining the nature of the technology."

Unfortunately, while women with bachelor's degrees in computer science made up close to 40% of the 1984 total, that figure has dropped to about 20%, according to the institute's research.

Dr. Borg adds, "We have to keep breaking down the barriers and continue getting more young women to follow careers in engineering."

Author Information

Lara Jackson, editorial assistant ljackson@cahners.com

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