SWE conference

Mikaela Mackin (R) a student at Michigan State University talks to recruiter Jennifer Orchard of Microsoft at the Society of Women Engineers annual conference in Milwaukee, Wisc., 2004.


In 2010, the toymaker Mattel finally asked the question surely burning in the minds of "I Can Be" Barbies everywhere: What do actual kids want me to do with my life?

The girls (and presumably some boys) had their say: Given the choice between computer engineer, architect, environmentalist, surgeon and news anchor, they chose news anchor. However, their older sisters, moms, grandmothers and aunts, mobilized in large part by a viral campaign launched by the Society of Women Engineers, chose computer engineer [sources: Barbie, Chicago Tribune].

Mattel ended up making both, still guilt-ridden over a 1992 talking Barbie that whined, "Math class is tough," we'd like to think. She comes with a hot pink laptop, hot pink glasses, and hot pink shoes. But they're flats. It's a start.

Members of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) have a vested interest in squashing the "girls can't do math" stereotype that persists, remarkably, in the 21st century. They work and study in a field still vastly dominated by men, even as sciences like chemistry and biology have seen a leveling of the genders [sources: Marder, Hafner]. For instance, in the 2010s women make up about 30 percent of practicing physicians, but only about 13 percent of practicing engineers [sources: Medscape, Koebler].

It's hard to pin down exactly why engineering still attracts few women, but there are some clear contributing factors. Stereotypes about women being "bad with numbers" don't help, but there's more to it. Life sciences have a long history of being friendlier to women. In the 1800s, it was socially acceptable for girls to learn about botany by drawing flowers and plants. The traditional women's colleges at the time already offered courses in chemistry and biology. But engineering was different – historically, training happened on the job, not in college. Engineers became engineers while building railroads or the Erie Canal, and women weren't exactly welcome on those types of crew [source: Holmes]. Macho remnants of those early engineering environments still infuse the field, and some women who do manage to break in end up leaving, finding their workplaces uncomfortable and their advancement opportunities limited [source: Marder].

In 1950, when not even 1 percent of American engineers were women, about 60 gathered to formalize what they'd been doing for years: Supporting, encouraging and pushing each other to excel in a career [source: SWE].