Despite decades of government, university, and employer efforts to close the gender gap in engineering, women make up only 11 percent of practicing engineers in the United States.1 What factors influence women graduates’ decisions to enter the engineering workforce and to either stay in or leave the field as their careers progress? Researchers are studying existing data and fielding new surveys to help answer these questions.
On April 24, 2013, the National Research Council Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine (CWSEM) held a workshop to explore emerging research and to discuss career pathways and outcomes for women who have received bachelor’s degrees in engineering. Participants included academic researchers and representatives from the US Department of Labor, National Science Foundation, Census Bureau, and several engineering professional societies.
Lilian Wu, program executive for IBM’s Global University Program and former CWSEM chair, opened the workshop. She proclaimed it an exciting time to be an engineer or computer scientist as the world is becoming increasingly computerized, interconnected, and instrumented with sensors, developments that have made it possible to capture massive amounts of data on natural systems, manufactured structures, and social systems. This information can in turn be used to improve the delivery of public services, such as education, public safety, and health care, as well as the way cities operate.
She observed that another important development is that people and systems are much more interconnected and there is an emerging capacity to look at systems in much greater depth. The healthcare system is not improved in isolation, for example, and the new data and interconnected technologies are changing the nature of physical manufacturing as well.
Engineers and computer scientists are at the center of this new world, and women and minority groups must fully participate in the design and building of it, Wu said. Efforts at this workshop to examine women’s career paths and obstacles can point the way to ensuring that this new world has a system in which women and minority groups can fully participate.
After Wu’s introductory remarks, attendees heard presentations on the research commissioned for the workshop. Gail Greenfield, principal with Mercer Consulting, reviewed her findings on “Career Outcomes of Women Engineering Bachelor’s Degree Recipients,” followed by Nadya Fouad and Romila Singh of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, who detailed the results of their study investigating why women leave engineering. Tom Perry then led a discussion of data needs, critical transitions, and career pathways for women in engineering that yielded numerous insights and ideas for further research. A special feature of the workshop was the presentations by graduate students in public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University’s H. John Heinz College who surveyed small and medium-sized businesses about women on their technical staff. The workshop closed with a general discussion of the issues presented and of other areas that warrant further exploration as well as a call to the attendees to incorporate the workshop observations and lessons in their actions going forward.
1 Fouad, N., and R. Singh. 2012. “Stemming the tide: Why women leave engineering.” University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.