Though still a small minority in engineering, many women in the field are making their presence known. While less than a fifth of engineers are female, women hold leadership positions in many of the top engineering organizations.
LeEarl Bryant became the IEEE-USA's first female president last year, and another woman is running in this fall's election. ASME also has a female president, Sue Skemp, while the NSPE has elected its first female president, Teresa Helmlinger.
Theories as to why women have suddenly begun moving into high leadership positions are tentative and varied. A few say it's because women are finally being recognized for their accomplishments, some say it's coincidence, while others wonder if women tend to be more active in this type of organization. Still others note that most organization presidents have been successful men at least in their 50s, and until recently there just weren't that many females in the field that long.
Any reluctance to have women run a largely male organization seems to have faded. "Many of the IEEE's sections and technical chapters are much more welcoming than when I joined the field," says Bryant, now the IEEE-USA's president emeritus.
Whatever the reason, the number of women engineers is growing steadily in all disciplines, though it's not exactly exponential. Nearly everyone agrees that engineering will benefit from diversity, but the statistical increases for women in engineering haven't been nearly as impressive as their unplanned takeover of engineering societies. A number of programs over the past couple decades tried to get more women and minorities to become engineers, but progress has been slow.
Few results, yet
"There's been a lot of money thrown at the problem with little result. We've gone from 15% women in the early 1980s to a national average of 18%," says Christine M. Cunningham, director of engineering education research at Tufts University (Medford, MA).
The slow increase in engineering could be the image problem, often cited as the reason engineering enrollment is fairly flat overall. While courtrooms and hospitals are seen on TV most nights, about the only TV show to star an engineer was the short-lived Dilbert cartoon. That's one reason why many people don't really understand what engineers do.
"For a large percentage of women, it's important to have a career beneficial to mankind. Many people, male and female, don't understand the importance of engineers in health and safety or the advances that engineers have brought to society," says Betty Shanahan, executive director of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE; Chicago).
Many groups are attempting to rectify that. SWE members recently began participating in the Girls Electronic Mentoring for Science, Engineering and Technology, a web-based program for high school girls. The ASME is also asking members to promote engineering.
The rise in the number of female engineers is coinciding with the aging of the large number of engineers in the baby boom generation. That's changing the makeup of engineering societies. In the ASME, 57% of the male members are over 45, in contrast to females, where 54% are under 39. The presence of women will grow as older engineers retire.
There's little talk of discrimination or harassment in the field of universities. A recent study of Women's Experiences in College Engineering, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, didn't see those issues as a reason that far more women than men transferred out of engineering.
Instead, attitudinal differences and the lack of role models are considered a key factor for women. Tufts University's Cunningham, who co-authored the report, says that 44% of the women leaving engineering programs have an A or B average. "It's not that they can't cut it," Cunningham says. There aren't solid statistics, but she feels that engineering schools lose around 60% of their female students through dropouts or transfers, compared to 40% of the men.
Women who are involved in some sort of support group more often get their degree than those who aren't. That's partly because of subtle factors—there are few women in the engineering faculty to serve as role models, and fewer women have female friends in engineering to commiserate with, she says.
In addition, women often view themselves more critically than men. Many feel they're failing when their engineering grades aren't as high as those courses where grade inflation is more common. "Dean after dean tells me women come in with a B average and say they can't cut it, while the deans have to call men with D averages to tell them they might want to change majors," Cunningham says.
In the workplace, as the number of women engineers grows, fewer of them are transferring out of the field. In the past, many women have moved into marketing or left engineering for education or other fields. Though, to be fair, men have left engineering at high rates, too. According to data from NSF, nearly one third of all engineering degree holders are not working in a science or engineering occupation. (About two thirds say their jobs are at least somewhat related.)
Now, leaving engineering is no longer necessary for someone intent on moving forward in her career.
"Within the last five years, more women have tried to advance along the technical side rather than go into management," says Ann Marie Rincon, an engineering fellow at AMI Semiconductor. In the past, many women felt they could leverage their people skills and move ahead in management, and many CEOs promoted that. "Companies wanted to say they had this many women moving into management," Rincon says.