As classes begin at colleges and universities throughout the country, the odds of finding a female engineering student is slim. Come next summer, the odds of finding a graduating
female engineering student is even slimmer. Consider these statistics, says Catherine Didion, director of the National Research Council's Committee on Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine:
- More than 50 percent of all students going into four-year colleges are women.
- But only 3 percent of all first-year students are women majoring in engineering.
- Only 1 percent of all graduates who receive their four-year degree are women engineering majors.
Pretty sad statistics, wouldn't you say? But they go a long way in explaining why so few women work in technology. To trace the kernel of this conundrum, you need to go back -- way back.
Starting with STEM and Mom
The No. 1 influence for young girls on choosing their career is mom, says Didion. This influence becomes very important in the middle school years, when students begin taking elective courses and are put onto math tracks that will affect the level of courses they'll be able to take in high school and college. "If you allow your child to remain in general math in middle school and don't push them to take Algebra 1, it restricts the choices they'll have in high school for more advanced math courses," says Didion. It's advanced math courses like calculus that set girls up for entry into college-level science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs later on.
High School's Harsh Realities
While the number of girls and boys taking Algebra 1 before entering high school is improving, it's still far from the majority. In 2009, roughly a quarter of high school graduates had taken the class before entering high school, according to the National Science Foundation's Science & Engineering Indicators 2012
Meanwhile, negative stereotypes about the way girls perform in STEM classes can lower their aspirations for science and engineering careers, according to a research report by the American Association of University Women. The report also found that girls under value their mathematical skills even though, in reality, their performance is on par with boys'. This lack of self-confidence may stem from their holding themselves to a higher standard. The AAUW's report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
, also notes:
When test administrators tell students that girls and boys are equally capable in math, however, the difference in performance essentially disappears, illustrating that changes in the learning environment can improve girls’ achievements in math.
Even though these girls may realize they're good in math, they still may not select a career in engineering. "Engineering ranks at the bottom as a career path," Didion says. "Many girls say they didn't understand what they could do with an engineering career. We find that many of them want a career that gives back to society, like in medicine or education. They don't realize that an engineering career can also give back." As a result, the National Academy of Engineering operates the website called Engineer Your Life, which aims to educate high school girls about engineering and answer their questions. A companion site, EngineerGirl, is aimed at middle school students.
In addition, Didion's organization provides online information about engineering careers for women and has a cadre of members ready to answer questions that girls post about engineering occupations and colleges where they can get a degree. Says Didion: "The girls are looking for someone they can connect with and have as a role model.
Image: Close Up of Girl on Computer Laptop from Bigstock