How the Society of Women Engineers Works

The Future of Women in Engineering

Here's one issue that may have far-reaching implications for potential female engineers. The SWE is involved in the hot U.S. public policy debate that is Title IX and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Most often understood as relating to gender equality in college athletics, Title IX in fact applies to all aspects of college opportunities, including academics. Research has shown that many entry-level college engineering courses cater mainly to students with extensive programming experience right out of high school, a population that tends to be strongly male [source: Hafner].

The organization is working with policy-makers to determine how exactly Title IX applies to these types of apparent discrepancies and how engineering programs can help increase the number of women pursuing engineering bachelor's degrees in the United States; women made up 18.1 percent of engineering graduates in 2010, down from 19.9 percent in 2001 and up from 17.8 percent in 2009 [source: Gibbons].

In recent years, efforts to further open engineering to women, or at least better understand why it's so closed, have yielded some results. The White House hosted its first "Girls in STEM" event in 2012, and several colleges and universities (notably Harvey Mudd, Stanford and U.C. Berkeley) have made adjustments to introductory computer-engineering classes in an attempt to attract more women [source: Marder].

Harvey Mudd, for one, divided the introductory course into separate sections for experienced coders and beginners and injected the curriculum with more of the human side of engineering -- how the science can affect and improve society and change people's lives, The school increased the percentage of engineering degrees earned by women from the single digits in 2006 to almost 40 percent in 2012 [source: Hafner].

But for such a concerted drive, the overall gains have been relatively small. In 2011, women, who make up 51 percent of the population, made up 13.4 percent of professional engineers [source: Koebler]. The male-to-female ratio of engineering graduate students is 4:1, and the field, according to some, is still infused with subtle (or not so subtle) discrimination, with entry and advancement opportunities for women lagging behind those for men [source: Marder].

But organizations like the SWE are still working at it, and Engineering Barbie's still computing on her pink laptop in 2013.

In her pink, cute-enough-for-a-girl-but-practical-enough-for-an-engineer flats.

Baby steps. But it's a start.

Author's Note: How the Society of Women Engineers Works

Before writing this piece, my knowledge of gender-in-engineering was entirely anecdotal and pointing in the same direction. I attended (oh, many years ago) a university with a prestigious engineering department, and I had quite a few friends in that department, and not a single one was female. My husband attended a school exclusively for engineers and in reminiscing has noted something along the lines of, "Women were in short supply."

Frankly, I expected to find out the situation wasn't nearly as gender-slanted as it seemed – in this day in age? When medical schools slant female? I was surprised to learn that in fact, the statistics back up my limited observations. Perhaps I shouldn't have been, though: I was all about math in seventh grade, and all about avoiding it in 12th. I find myself wondering how many women wish they could go back and take calculus again, but this time with confidence. (No? Just me?)

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