Engineering field has designs for women

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 and hosted by Verizon Business. 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 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 47 percent in 2000, it’s still too high, Nicholson 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.

Citing 2005 statistics from the American Society for Engineering Education, Julie Trenor, director of undergraduate student recruitment and retention at the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering, 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, she said, it will have to find better ways to encourage women to join the profession.

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.

To be successful in STEM fields, technical skills aren’t the only things students will need. "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."

Laura Ascione

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