To help encourage more girls to choose engineering as a career, female engineers from across the country reached out to students and educators March 22-23 during the “Global Marathon for, by, and about Women in Engineering,” a live, 24-hour webcast sponsored by computer manufacturer Lenovo. Most sessions will be available via a web archive.

Sally Ride, former NASA astronaut and the first U.S. woman in space, kicked off the event with her remarks. “I think it’s important for … all the women who are in science and engineering who love it and have had fulfilling careers to transmit that message to the girls growing up, to tell them this is really interesting stuff,” Ride said.

K-12 and college students, along with teachers, counselors, and parents, participated in the webcast and had a chance to ask questions of professional women engineers around the world, from the United States to locations such as Egypt and Germany.

Sessions featured topics such as “Live Your Life, Love What You Do: Talking to High School Girls About Engineering,” “Why Engineering is Fun,” and “Advancing the Pipeline of Women in Engineering: What You Can Do to Help Recruit and Retain Female Undergraduates.”

A common theme throughout the webcast was the need to change girls’ perceptions of what they can do—and what engineering is all about.

During her half-hour session, Heather Johnston Nicholson, director of research for Girls Inc., discussed findings from “The Supergirl Dilemma: Girls Grapple with the Mounting Pressure of Expectations,” a follow-up to Girls Inc.’s 2000 survey on girls and society.

“Girls don’t get less smart; once you know you’re good at math and science and like it, that’s going to be the way it stays,” she said. “Math, science, technology, and engineering are not closed to girls—they can find [an interest in these subjects] later as well as earlier, but the earlier the better.”

The survey found that 35 percent of girls in grades 3-12 said they believe it’s true people don’t think girls are effective leaders. While that’s down from about 47 percent in 2000, it’s still too high, webcast participants said.

“Even today, society values beauty in girls over intelligence and talent,” said one ninth-grade girl quoted in the report.

Nicholson suggested that parents and adults listen to what their daughters and other girls around them are saying and to redefine notions of femininity and masculinity.

“Lots of women in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] professions are fun, cool people,” she said. Adults not only should advocate for gender awareness in school systems, but also should help girls see math and science everywhere in their lives and debunk the myth that girls and boys are hardwired for different career paths and different academic strengths, she added.

Women are not “one size fits all” and can’t be treated as a single underrepresented group, said Julie Trenor, director of undergraduate student recruitment and retention at the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering. Trenor gave a presentation on how to recruit and retain female engineering undergraduates. Other factors, such as ethnicity and generational status in college, play a role as well, she said.

Citing 2005 statistics from the American Society for Engineering Education, Trenor said only 17.5 percent of the undergraduate engineering students in the United States are women. If the U.S. is to remain competitive with other countries in the engineering field, it will have to find better ways to encourage women to join the profession, experts say.

A 2003 study by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender found that women choose other careers in part because they don’t see engineering as a way to help others. The study, conducted over 17 years, followed Michigan students from 6th grade through college and beyond.

Engineering provides “many opportunities for learning, and since technology is constantly changing, it keeps things exciting. There is much more to computer engineering than just sitting at a desk typing on a computer all day,” said software developer Tam Cummings, another webcast contributor.

Cummings offered hints about how to gain engineering skills and experience outside of the classroom. “To get a sense of a more realistic engineering environment and have fun along the way, you might want to become involved in projects that exist beyond your [college] classes,” she said. “Many postsecondary institutions support various student engineering projects.”

Many schools offer organizations dedicated to engineering students, in addition to engineering department student clubs. Here, Cummings said, students can develop “soft skills,” such as working with academics and others in the engineering industry, organizing engineering-oriented events, and communicating with other universities.

To be successful in STEM fields, technical skills aren’t the only things students will need, she explained. “Once in the workforce, communication and people skills prove to be essential,” Cummings said. “Engineering organizations are a good way to acquire and hone such skills.”

Verizon Business hosted the 24-hour event via its global information network.

“Lenovo is focused on cultivating a diverse and talented pipeline of engineers. By reaching students early, we can help them overcome the subtle social obstacles that often turn school-age girls away from technical professions,” said Fran O’Sullivan, senior vice president of the Lenovo Product Group. “This is our way of inspiring the next generation of women engineers by exposing them to a wide showcase of role models who have built distinguished careers in technical fields.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Links:

Global Marathon for, by, and about Women in Engineering
http://www.eweek.org/site/News/Eweek/2007_marathon/schedule.shtml

Connecting Educators to Engineering
http://www.eweek2006.org/