Women aren’t a new occurrence in engineering, but until recently the field has been primarily dominated by men. In today’s world, even in the states that have the highest number of female graduates with engineering degrees, women still only make up, at most, 22% of graduates and 14% of working engineers.
That hasn’t stopped these amazing women from making some astonishing discoveries, though. Let’s take a closer look at the advances that women are making in engineering and how schools are trying to get more girls interested in the field.
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The History of Women in Engineering
Women may make up 14% of the engineering workforce, but this isn’t the first era that’s celebrated women in this field. Let’s take a closer look at some of these astonishing women and how they changed the world.
Stephanie Louise Kwolek was born in 1923. While her work wasn’t recognized publically until she received the National Medal of Technology in 1996, a lot of police officers and military members wouldn’t be alive today without her work in liquid crystalline polymers. She discovered these stronger-than-steel fibers in 1965 that were eventually used to invent Kevlar — a component used in bulletproof vests.
Actress Hedy Lamar may be best known for her time on the silver screen, but she should be remembered for her frequency hopping theory. She theorized that communication could be improved if radio signals and transmissions could hop frequencies to avoid interference — and this theory is the foundation for modern communication. Next time you connect to a Wi-Fi signal or use a Bluetooth device, thank Ms. Lamar.
Female engineers invented the windshield wiper (Mary Anderson in 1902, after observing someone leaving their window open during a winter storm to clear away sleet from the windshield), a system of communication using flares (Martha J. Coston in 1859, who also invented the “Coston flares” used in this system, which are still used to this day) and much more.
With so many amazing women in engineering to look up to, why does the fairer sex still only make up 14% of the modern workforce?
More Than a Small Increase
While 14% might not seem like much, mainly because women make up roughly 50% of the workforce, it’s a dramatic increase. In the 1980s, only 5.8% of the engineering workforce was female. We’ve nearly tripled that number in the last three decades. It’s still not enough, though — and there are still quite a few barriers preventing women from exploring careers in this industry.
The first is a lack of female leaders in the field. Since there are so few women in engineering, it’s harder for them to become industry leaders. This, in turn, makes it harder for young women who are trying to break into engineering to find a mentor or someone they can look up to who isn’t long-dead.
As with many male-dominated fields, there is a lot of sexism and stereotyping to overcome in engineering as well. Many companies still run their engineering departments like a boys-only club, making it more difficult for women to even make that first step into their chosen career.
It may seem like a bit of a catch-22, but the best way to eliminate this sexism and lack of female leadership is for more women to seek out careers or degrees in the field. Thankfully, several emerging engineering fields are always looking for new minds, regardless of gender.
Women in Geoengineering
Our current generation is living under the threat of climate change. Experts tell us we have roughly 12 years to change our ways before the damage we’ve done to the planet becomes irreversible. This imminent threat has led to the growth of new engineering fields — including geoengineering.
Geoengineering is the practice of intervening in the earth’s natural systems on a planet-wide scale. Essentially, we’d be taking steps to either cool the planet by blocking sunlight or capturing carbon dioxide and monoxide from the atmosphere to prevent it from further heating the Earth’s surface.
While this sounds like a fantastic solution, there are very few advocates for this type of intervention because not enough research has been done into its safety and feasibility. Some of the answers, like launching sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight, mimicking the effect of a volcanic eruption, could reflect enough sunlight to cool the planet — or it could reflect all the sunshine and send us into a new Ice Age.
The majority of advocates believe that we need more research into geoengineering before it can be utilized as an effective weapon to combat climate change — but we need more engineers to do that research, making it an extraordinary opportunity for women interested in pursuing a career in engineering.
STEM for Young Women
To encourage women in engineering, we have to get more young girls interested in the field. What can we do to help girls look to engineering as a viable career option?
First, we need to stop treating it like a boys-only club. Don’t exclude girls and young women from engineering classes, clubs and extracurricular activities. If you can do so, start hosting some of these activities that are focused exclusively on young women. Girls may feel more comfortable expressing their interest in this field if they aren’t left feeling like they have to compete with the boys.
During lessons on famous engineers, don’t just focus on male role-models like Nikola Tesla or Albert Einstein. We don’t want to take anything away from their extraordinary accomplishments, but focusing on them exclusively leaves out half the population. We’ve given you a few fantastic examples of women who’ve accomplished incredible things, and there are more than we’ve included here.
Finally, encourage them. If a young girl or young woman expresses interest in engineering, don’t shoot down her dreams by saying it’s just for boys. It’s not. The future belongs to all of us, regardless of gender, and we need to start encouraging the newer generations to follow their dreams, no matter where they lead.