How Women’s Innovation Is Shattering STEM Stereotypes
STEM While women were once considered unfit to be engineers, it’s becoming clear that we’re exactly what the industry needs.
I was a practicing woman mechanical engineer in the 1980s. To complicate matters, I became an engineer through combining my love of creative art and design. Most people I knew scratched their heads at my interest in engineering. Some even said I was confused.
Yet there I was in a small start-up, designing a number of different products using a 3-D modeling CAD system, doing my own mockups, and riveting prototypes together. I was in heaven. Advancing to a larger company the following year, I remember the dismayed look on my boss’s face on my first day of work. He was assigned “the girl engineer.”
A difficult start
According to ASME, in the 1980s, “women constituted only 5.8 percent of all engineers in the United States, and today, the Congressional Joint Economic Committee reports that only 14 percent of engineers are women and 18-20 percent of engineering students are women.”
Additionally, it was often argued that women did not have the strength in math and science skills to be engineers. It was the rise of the dotcom age, so if you did spot one of those elusive creatures called the “woman engineer,” they were likely in software.
Despite progress, the stigma remains, and women are still reluctant to join the ranks of one of life’s most challenging, rewarding and critical careers. Recent research by Stanford University revealed that while women engineering students perform as well as men, they often switch majors because of the steretypes against women in math and science. It appears that not enough has changed — least not yet.
Today, a complex global world has driven the need for rapid advances in technology and, in turn, has created a number of new opportunities for creative innovation. Combine the drive for innovation with the need to address the challenges for socially responsible design and the delivery of systems that create a better world and you now have the model for a new kind of engineer. This is good news for women wanting to break the stereotype.
“‘...only 14 percent of engineers are women and 18-20 percent of engineering students are women.’”
Advances in STEM programs in universities and precollege schooling have helped to break the barriers and made technology and engineering-related fields more popular and acceptable among women. These STEM programs need to include not only expertise in science and math but also adjacent creative and collaborative skills training that drive the best innovations. And this is a sweet spot for women.
The future of engineering
My experience has been that generally women are collaborators, sensitive listeners and often creative. Combine that with technological and mathematics capabilities many women possess and this embodies a new “STEM plus” skillset. The stereotypes are going to be broken. With global environments, demands for social responsibility aimed at the development of a better world and U.S. reshoring trends, the demand for the new engineer has arrived.
Engineering has provided me with lifelong career credibility as a female executive. It has driven my inquisitive all-things-are-possible spirit. I can honestly say it’s a great career for anyone, especially women. Good innovative solutions are agnostic to gender, color, or culture.
I found that out once after a design of mine survived shock and vibration testing. The rest of the team had failed. Remember that boss who got the “girl engineer”? On that day, he became my biggest advocate and one of my lifelong mentors. So, girls, let’s get moving. The world awaits your innovative talents.