How women in engineering proudly raise their flag and pursue their dreams

  Ohio University   |  

In 2019, only 15.7% of workers in architecture and engineering jobs were women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Nevertheless, many women have contributed significantly to these fields, inspiring female engineers to persevere.

Over the past few centuries, the work of women in engineering has led to many innovative products and systems, such as remote-controlled communications, Kevlar, and a signaling flare system.

Female pioneers in engineering
Beulah Henry created numerous patents over her lifetime. These patents include a vacuum ice cream freezer and a bobbin-free lockstitch machine. Hedy Lamarr invented a remote-controlled communications system that was used by the American military during World War II. Stephanie Louise Kwolek discovered crystalline polymers, which led to the invention of Kevlar. Finally, Martha Coston developed a flare system that’s now used by the U.S. military.

Percentages of engineering bachelor’s degree awarded to women, 2017-2018
In college engineering programs, some fields are closely split between male and female students, while others have opportunities to engage more women. For example, women received just over half of the engineering degrees with an environmental concentration, and women earned less than 15% of the engineering degrees with mechanical and electrical concentrations. Employment figures also show a disparity in the workforce. In 2019, industrial engineers and computer hardware engineers were the only fields featuring more than 20% of full-time positions filled by women.

Supporting female engineers in the workplace
Women are making valuable contributions across a variety of engineering specializations. Support and encouragement from colleagues and organizations can empower women to continue their growth in the field of engineering.

Why women leave engineering careers
There are several reasons why women may walk away from engineering. Some of these reasons are unfortunately blatant, such as harassment, gender discrimination, or being ignored in meetings. Other reasons involve disrespect of varying levels, from microaggressions like slights or put-downs to being ignored during meetings. False assumptions can also spur leaving the field, whether they’re others’ false perceptions regarding women’s emotions, gender roles, or ability to relate to male clients or something more subtle like unconscious bias. In some cases, burnout caused by the stress of feeling undervalued could be the reason.

How to encourage women to pursue and stay in engineering
There are numerous proactive strategies that can potentially help retain women in engineering. For instance, schools can encourage tech companies to offer internships or scholarships to female students. Once in the workforce, companies can provide women personalized feedback and peer support, pair women with mentors, make more room for women to join leadership teams, develop managers who can help women imagine themselves as engineers and engineering leaders. Finally, companies can offer flexible working conditions for women with children.

Additionally, organizations can further support women by creating programs to teach male employees practical skills to support female colleagues. Having male allies can help mitigate the personal and professional costs that women pay when standing up for themselves, and it also helps re-classify gender inequality as an organizational mandate instead of a “women’s issue.”

How men can empower women in engineering
Men can proactively help women become empowered in the engineering field in numerous ways. Some of these strategies can include proactively researching inequities in STEM, serving on a hiring committee with the goal of supporting gender equality, participating in cross-gender mentoring, and learning to actively listen to women without interrupting them.

Notable women in engineering
Women continue to climb the ranks of well-known companies to reach prominent leadership positions. Gwynee Shotwell, Elissa Murphy, and Alicia Boler Davis helm powerful companies, inspiring girls, students, and female engineers. Other women like Debbie Sterling and Sylvia Acevedo have taken the entrepreneurial path and launched their own companies and initiatives.

Gwynee Shotwell
As president and COO of SpaceX, Shotwell, who was the company’s seventh employee, was responsible for guiding the company toward its human spaceflight. She also oversaw 20 flights of the Falcon 9 rocket in 2018.

Debbie Sterling
Sterling is the founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, a children’s multimedia company that offers engineering toys for girls. She created the world’s first girl engineer character, and her work earned her accolades like Time’s “Person of the Moment” in 2013 and a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship in 2015.

Elissa Murphy
The VP at Google, Murphy sits on several engineering advisory boards and holds more than 30 patents. She’s also held multiple positions, including Chief technology officer at GoDaddy and VP of engineering at Yahoo.

Sylvia Acevedo
Currently serving as CEO of Girls Scouts of the USA, Acevedo began her career as a rocket scientist at Jet Propulsion Labs, working on the Voyager mission. She also led the redesign of IBM’s manufacturing facilities and served as an executive for Apple, Autodesk and Dell.

Alicia Boler Davis
As executive VP of Global Manufacturing at General Motors, Boler Davis leads GM’s global manufacturing operations as well as its manufacturing engineering and labor relations organizations. She was also the first Black female engineer to become plant manager at GM and has held multiple VP roles.

Working for an even better future
Though the engineering workplace has significantly improved over the past few decades, the decision to persevere in the face of obstacles like gender discrimination and poor workplace culture will require dedication. For female engineers who have enjoyed success in the industry, the opportunities to make an impact and inspire other women will have far-reaching effects on engineering’s future.

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