When you look at education statistics, the representation of women in engineering seems just about ideal—almost half of science and engineering bachelor’s degree recipients are women.
But following the pipeline, only a quarter of the STEM workforce is women, and that drops to 10.5% who are employed as engineers.
That’s why today, the dual focus of Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day—also known as Girl Day—isn’t just about exposure at an early age, but retention as women enter into the workforce.
The annual national observance is about two decades old, and is part of the even older Engineers Week. It was created as a “wake-up call” to the industry, according to Kathy Renzetti, CAE, executive director of Discover Engineering.
“We were the first organization to recognize the need for engineering outreach,” Renzetti says.
“We thought this is the best way, to go into the classroom and work with students. We focus on K-12. The research we have is that if they’re exposed that way in their young age, they’ll pursue it through middle school, high school and through college,” adds Renzetti.
“Give girls the chance to think like an engineer and you’ll be amazed at what you learn,” say organizers.
WorkingNation applauds these remarkable role models encouraging young women to choose engineering as a career path.
We spoke to several young women about what inspired them to pursue a career in engineering, and how they overcame some of the stereotypes and biases in the industry on their road to success.
Once a Builder, Always a Builder
With Legos and Connects among her favorite toys growing up, civil engineer Lauren Pins says she always enjoyed “building things.” Encouraged by her parents, she started researching engineering in junior high, then attended engineering summer camps— including one at Michigan Tech for girls—and job-shadowed her county’s engineering office in high school, all before pursuing an engineering degree in college.
“I enjoy talking with other females and finding out what interests them. Almost everything in our world can be related to engineering somehow. Maybe their interest is shopping: this can easily be related to industrial engineering with finding more economic processes or shipping items more effectively.
“Maybe their interest is figure skating: there are a lot of physics and mechanics behind the jumps and spins of a figure skater,” Pins says. “Without realizing it, many of our everyday activities comprise of math and science. The stereotypical math problem can sometimes be intimidating, but when we think about our everyday activities and how math and science is applied, it can become more interesting and something we want to learn more about.”
Stereotypes Build Barriers to Gender Equity
Pins is part of the National Society of Professional Engineers Emerging Leaders Program, which immerses select mid-career professionals with five-to-eight years of experience in training to prepare them for high levels of leadership. She says from her time in college to internships to her current workgroup, she’s often been the only woman among her peers. Pins says she doesn’t find it intimidating. But a fellow Emerging Leader, Anali Martinez Gonzalez, says she can understand why some could.
Gonzalez followed in the footsteps of her father, who was a civil engineer. She admired how his work directly impacted the community in which they lived and is proud to break the mold of a “typical engineer,” which she describes as male, quiet and shy, dressed as a stereotypical “nerd” or in construction wear—hard hat, vest and boots.
“When I walk into a room…with my dresses, heels, and extroverted personality, (people) are shocked to learn what I do,” she says. Gonzalez recalls a life moment courtesy of a professor.
“My first semester in college, in my introduction to civil engineering class, the professor said a few statistics out loud to the class about the demographics in our introduction class versus the demographics of the graduates of the program. One of the statistics was that, out of all the women in the class at that moment, only a quarter would make it through the civil engineering program and graduate. That really hit me and made me want to be one of the ones that graduated from the program because I felt like it would be me sticking it to the man!” she says.
“I think it was his way of trying to encourage the female students but it back-fired in a way because not everyone was motivated to prove the statistic wrong,” Gonzalez tells WorkingNation.
Civil engineer and NPSE Emerging Leader Danielle Yoon recalls a work meeting incident that unnecessarily brought attention to her gender and undermined her qualifications.
“During one of my early site visits with a client, I was made fun of for wearing a pink blouse, after which all of the project questions were then directed towards my male coworker,” Yoon says.
“I was thrown by this and felt like my credibility as an engineer had been stripped. I’m ashamed to admit that later that night I went home and got rid of my feminine work clothes. It wasn’t until a few years later that I was finally fed up with hearing ‘you don’t look like an engineer.’”
She adds, “I’ve decided to stop changing myself to meet the expectation of what an engineer should look like with the hope that as more women enter the field we can chip away at this outdated imagery.”
Shifting the Perception, Shifting the Gender Equation
These types of messages can discourage educated and qualified woman engineers from pursuing the profession, says Renzetti.
“The culture is not always welcoming for women. They leave. They might stay in an engineering firm, but in a peripheral role. They may shift to marketing instead of being an engineer because it’s dominated by men and they’re not feeling included,” she says.
To help foster systemic change, Discover Engineering launched its Persist Series, a monthly virtual speaker series featuring women in engineering and technology that helps them build networks to support each other and inclusivity in the profession.
“Diversity is imperative in any industry for having the best team possible to have different perspectives and worldviews, and engineering traditionally has been primarily dominated by males,” says Bailey Diacon, structural engineer and NPSE Emerging Leader.
“When you leave out half the population from an industry, you’re missing out on significant experience and different opinions to offer creative solutions.”
Girl Day is dedicated to giving students a glimpse into labs, conduct STEAM activities at home or wherever they’re remote learning, and chat with engineers.
But NPSE Emerging Leader Kori McKenzie says mentoring and outreach can happen all year round. McKenzie, a site design engineer, volunteers her time with Girls Inc. of Metro Dallas, talking with students about what to expect in college and career as they pursue engineering.
She shares her top three pieces of advice for career and life:
- Getting along with your coworkers is way more important than finding “your dream job”, you spend more time with them than you do your own family.
- It is important to feel fulfilled outside of the office, because work can’t always be rainbows and sunshine.
- It’s okay for your hobbies to stay hobbies, not everything has to be monetized or become a side hustle.
You can get more resources to share the day here.