How to increase the global ranks of women engineers

Paul Boughton

The world can no longer afford the significant gender gap in engineering that currently exists, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers( IEEE), the world’s largest professional technical association, and the IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE)
“In developed countries like Japan, the US, and Australia, traditional thinking about women’s roles is still quite predominant and it deters women from studying engineering,” said Dr Takako Hashimoto, IEEE WIE coordinator in the Asia Pacific region and associate professor of computer science at Chiba University of Commerce in Japan. “We must overcome conservative opinions to encourage female students to attend engineering universities.”
Even as professions like law and medicine show great strides in achieving gender balance, the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers consistently lags behind their male peers. In China, women make up approximately 40 per cent of the STEM workforce according to the Chinese Academy of Science, while in the United States women account for only 24 per cent of the STEM workforce according to recent statistics from the US Department of Commerce. Work-life balance, lack of support and encouragement for female students, and cultural perceptions about roles of women are among a few reasons why the engineering field is male-dominated in most parts of the world.
For its part, IEEE and its members around the world have established programs to help support women in engineering and encourage female students to pursue an engineering career. Since 1994, the IEEE WIE group has provided support and recognition of women in electrical and electronics engineering through networking opportunities at technical conferences, IEEE Awards nominations, and advocacy for women in leadership roles in IEEE governance as well as career advancement for women in the engineering profession.
IEEE members advocating for women in engineering will be part of a month-long drive on the IEEE WIE Facebook page to engage people worldwide in discussions about how to interest more girls in engineering and ensure women are able to build successful engineering careers. For example, former Chair of WIE Dr Karen Panetta started the Nerd Girls  programme at Tufts University, where she is a professor.
“When I first started teaching at Tufts University, I recruited a group of women engineer students who I saw had some confidence problems even though they had better grades than their male counterparts,” said Dr Panetta, who is an IEEE Fellow. “I wanted to show them through engineering projects that the skills they build as engineers can allow them to take on any challenge.” It’s since become a growing, global movement that celebrates smart-girl individuality. Nerd Girl projects have included converting a lighthouse to incorporate solar technology, retrofitting homes with solar power, and showcasing female engineers on a web video program.
In India, current WIE Chair Dr Ramalatha Marimuthu says the challenge is different: Young women do get into engineering though they often leave the profession as they have children. “In India, families are supportive of women taking up engineering as a profession,” Dr Marimuthu said. “Engineering colleges, especially women colleges in India are up and coming in a big way.”
Dr. Marimuthu is encouraging primary school students to pursue STEM careers and motivating them through practical teaching methods such as science exhibition fairs. “I created a network of girls in all-girls schools to help them create a path into the engineering field,” she said. “To motivate them, I asked the children to participate in science exhibitions so they can gain an understanding of what engineering can do to help change the world.”
Dr. Hashimoto, who is an IEEE Senior Member, observes that a significant challenge in some countries, such as the US and Japan, is that there are cultural expectations for women to manage the responsibility of housekeeping and childcare while employed, yet the cost of hiring help is often prohibitive. In other countries, like India and the Philippines, Dr. Hashimoto says it may be easier for female engineers to maintain a career and a family because working mothers can more easily afford to hire a housekeeper.
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