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Why We Need More Women Engineers

May 18, 2016
Female engineering student

My university has more than 3,000 women engineering students, more than most engineering schools have students. Yet our numbers need to grow—and quickly. Here’s why.

Recently, I spoke with a group of female students about being engineers. They did not hold back, including one who quipped: “I don’t know why those guys build the stupid stuff they build.”

She dished out humor with blunt criticism, but it reinforced my belief that we need to expand the pool of engineers, drawing from the most varied cross-section of people that we can. Unlike producing widgets, we are producing problem solvers and need the broadest set of perspectives possible.

Not everyone thinks the same, so we all benefit from tapping into the largest number of creative thinkers and doers. We expand the range of ideas about what problems need to be tackled, and how best to attack and solve them.

As a society, we are barely getting started. Women earn less than 20 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. In 2014, that added up to around 19,500 out of just over 99,000 bachelor’s degrees nationwide. The numbers are only modestly better for engineering master’s degrees—24.2 percent.

We can do better. We must do better.

We have seen how certain traditional engineering disciplines struggle to draw and hold females: Both mechanical and electrical engineering, for example, which represent a third of all bachelor’s degrees awarded, failed to include even 14 percent female graduates. In contrast, nearly 41 percent of biomedical engineering and 48 percent of environmental degrees were awarded to women. This tells me that a shift in perspective about the content and design of engineering education is a key to expanding the population of women.

When he was president of the National Academy of Engineering, former Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Charles Vest came to Arizona to discuss the concept and value of building engineering programs around grand challenges and improving the quality of life on a global scale. This helped set in motion an innovation process to rethink and rebuild Arizona State’s engineering schools to integrate traditionally separate disciplines and do more collaborative research.

This influenced our decision to create five schools of engineering focused on such multidisciplinary areas as biological and health systems; sustainable engineering and the built environment; and matter, transport and energy. And it has led to seeking solutions for such challenges as providing energy from fusion and making solar energy more economical, to employing robotics for paralysis and biomedical technologies to address Parkinson’s disease and cancer, to providing access to clean water and improving urban infrastructure.

Today these schools serve nearly 19,000 students; and they urge new students to get involved in addressing problems from the day they start, a process that can accelerate change by taking advantage of the widest diversity of ideas and options. That includes drawing on the insights of an expanding female population.

This is not just a university-level challenge, of course. It starts in the earliest years of K-12 education when cultural pressures and, frankly, bad teaching can push capable girls away from math and science. These can be intimidating, even overwhelming, and we must find ways over those hurdles which continue all the way through school and into the marketplace. Too many capable graduates veer away from engineering in part because it has been a male-dominated profession and they do not feel welcome or inspired.

This can and must change. At a time when the US (and the world) needs more qualified students preparing for an increasingly high-tech STEM workforce, we cannot afford half of the population disproportionately avoiding this path. In the years ahead, the need to make the most of our collective brain power and creativity will only increase.