Women in engineering in the United States

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Historically, women in the United States have been represented at lower rates than men in both science and engineering college programs and careers. Over time, this pattern has led to a significantly higher concentration of male professional engineers compared to women.[1][2] Additionally, this disparity has led to careers in Education, History, English, Humanities and the like to be seen as “feminine” careers and areas of study.[1][2] Some Feminist theorists suggest that these social and historical factors have perpetuated women’s low participation rates in engineering over time.[2] Numerous explanations and points of view have been offered to explain women's participation rates in this field. These explanations include beliefs regarding women's lack of interest in science and engineering, their physiological inability to succeed as engineers, and environmental factors in women's childhoods that discourage them from entering science and engineering fields.[1][2]

Negative perceptions of female engineers may play a role in explaining their low numbers within the field.[3] According to recent statistics, college-educated women are less than half as likely as men to be employed in science and engineering jobs.

Two forms of activism tasked with raising awareness include both organizations on college campuses and those geared towards society at large.


In the early 1960s, a President’s Commission on the Status of Women emphasized the need for women to fill a shortage of jobs in teaching, science, and engineering.[1] In 1960, however, less than 1% of recorded engineers were women. Furthermore, female engineers that were employed were less likely to have obtained advanced degrees in their field than men.[1] Research has shown that these trends were reflective of both men's and women's dominant opinions regarding women's role in the workforce throughout this period. At the time, both groups largely emphasized women’s roles as traditional homemakers and mothers rather than as serious scientists or engineers.[1][2][4]

Despite changing political views towards women and minorities during the civil rights movement, college women’s enrollment rates into engineering were still relatively low when compared to men's.[1] For example, in a study of over 440 college campuses nationwide throughout 1971-72, approximately 17% of polled Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) majors were women.[5] This coincides with the fact that, throughout this period, there was little recorded formal discrimination in the American educational system.[6] Women who actually applied to engineering programs were enrolled at similar rates to men. Early increases in these numbers did occur, though, throughout 1968-78. During this period, there was an estimated 100% increase in the number of female science and engineering majors throughout the United States.[6] However, it was also estimated that they still accounted for less than 4.9% of such majors throughout this period.[6]

Despite women’s increasing numbers in science and engineering fields, affirmative action and similar efforts were implemented throughout the U.S. to increase STEM enrollment rates.[1][5][7] It was proposed, among other factors, that early socialization by elementary schools and social stereotyping was to blame for this issue. In the mid 1980s, a shortage of qualified engineers was predicted by the year 2000, further instigating efforts to both recruit and retain women in these fields.[8] Existing groups that promote women in engineering: ASCE Task force Committee on Women in Civil Engineering, Extraordinary Women Engineers Project Coalition.[9]

Statistics and relevant data[edit]

Percentage of Engineering Bachelor’sDegrees Awarded to Womenby School

According to the National Science Foundation, overall, women have higher college graduation rates compared to men. However, men disproportionately outnumber women in the number of Science and Engineering (STEM) degrees received.[10] Between 1989 and 2008, the approximate percentages of women receiving their Bachelor’s degree in any engineering field were 17% and 19.6%, respectively. The percentage increase in the computer science industry displayed was larger, increasing from approximately 10% in 1989 to 21% in 2008.

Concerning minority (African American, Hispanic, Native American) women, the percentages of engineering bachelor’s recipients increased from approximately 7% in 1989 to 12% in 2008.[10] The percentages of minority women with engineering doctoral degrees were much lower, however, barely increasing from 1% throughout this period. Asian women actually accounted for a lower rate of engineering bachelor's degree during this time period, from approximately 2.5% to 5%. PhD recipient rates from 1989 to 2008 were nearly identical to minority women’s.[10]

According to the National Society of Professional Engineers in 2004, there were approximately 192,900 female engineers throughout the country, compared with over 1,515,000 men.[11] Of these women, approximately 1/3 of them were software engineers (62,900). Women were also employed in higher rates than men in environmental engineering (9% to 4%) and chemical engineering (7% to 4%). However, they were less likely than men to be employed in mechanical engineering (8% to 17%) and electrical engineering (12% to 18%).[11]

In 1999, women made up approximately one quarter of all engineers under the age of 25, whereas they constituted one-twentieth of those over age 49. This age discrepancy has been attributed to women's notable, but recent, movement into engineering within the past few decades.[11] According to the Society of Women Engineers, women and other minorities constituted approximately 16%-17% of engineering graduate students from 1990-2003. Furthermore, in 2003 approximately 20% (approximately 12,000)of new engineers were women, compared with about 80% of men (approximately 49,000).[12]

According to the ASEE, the top 10 colleges producing women engineers:[13]

  1. Georgia Institute of Technology
  2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  3. University of Michigan
  4. Purdue University
  5. Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  6. Ohio State University
  7. Pennsylvania State University
  8. University of Florida
  9. Texas A&M University
  10. Cornell University

Explanations for low participation rates[edit]

Numerous explanations have come forth to account for the lack of women engineering majors in college. Historically, women have both majored and remained in college engineering programs at lower rates than men.[1][2][14][15] One of the reasons used to explain this trend has been a supposed overemphasis on the traditional "male breadwinner" household model when it comes to organizing families today.[16] Although the percentage of families organized according to this model has declined considerably in recent decades, many individuals, including women, still see adult men as the primary wage earners in households where men were present.[16][17] Even if this is the case women represent close to 60% of university graduates, including biology mayors. IES: What is the percentage of degrees conferred by race and sex?

Recently, greater emphasis has been given to women’s socialization throughout their childhoods and adolescences. Socialized early in their childhoods, girls are said to be raised in societies where science, engineering, and mathematics are largely promoted as “male professions”.[16][17] The media has also been criticized for giving little representation of prominent female engineers. Instead, some scholars feel the media is guilty of perpetuating gender stereotypes by representing women in traditionally “female occupations” such as nurses, school teachers, housewives, etc.[14][18] This idea is supported by a study where STEM field applicants were given a first and second choice on their majors. The results showed that women were more likely to pick male dominated fields in their second choice than in their first. The study found that orentations toward certain fields of study were less segregated than actual behaviors, suggesting cultural perception toward certain fields curbs the aspiration of women who are the most competent.[19]

Christina Hoff Sommers has suggested that subjects such as Engineering may be less popular among women because they do not accommodate some of their typical interests: caring for/interaction with living beings may be one example. This is not necessarily to suggest, with Lawrence Summers, that women are incapable, or less fundamentally capable than men at Engineering, but rather that they tend to be less interested in the subject.[20] The principle strength of this argument is that it explains the phenomenon without drawing tenuous links with difficult-to-measure influences such as 'culture' and 'role-models', but it is also to some degree reinforced by academic consensus, which was identified in the 'Social and Political views of American Professors' paper as 75% in favor of the claim that differing interests between men and women caused the disparity, rather than discrimination.[21]

The presence of role models, and especially female role models, has also been emphasized as a means of increasing women’s numbers in engineering.[16][22] Women with one or two engineering parents are said to be moderately more likely to major in such a field themselves.[16] Additionally, encouragement from teachers, counselors, administrators, etc. are all said to positively impact women's chances at moving into engineering. Better high school preparation in mathematics, biology, and chemistry were also said to better women's chances for an engineering career. However, according to some scholars, the above factors do not occur in a great enough number to compensate for women's current disadvantages.[16][17][22] Thus, generally speaking, it is said that hopeful women engineers will remain largely discriminated against and have inadequate resources at improving their outlook unless substantial social changes are made.

Socialization and societal outcomes[edit]

Educational outcomes[edit]

It has been suggested that, due to the social and environmental factors described above, high school and college women tend to have lower confidence levels in their mathematical ability compared to men.[1][14][15][18] Shelley Correll's observations using the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS) revealed that, on average, women who positively assessed their math ability before testing had a higher average score than women who did not rate themselves well. Moreover, longitudinal studies on both sets of women also revealed that the ones who did rate themselves highly were more likely to subsequently enroll in college-level calculus.[15]

Goldman later discovered that positive math assessments played an important role in women's choices to enroll in engineering.[18] However, other studies have before and since emphasized women’s early life experiences in shaping their career aspirations. Feeling they are not skilled enough to successfully complete an engineering program or other advanced mathematical and/or science courses, some women perform poorly and thus complete a self-fulfilling prophecy.[1][15] If at all, differences in men’s and women’s innate spatial memories were reported to account for about a 2:1 ratio of male-female engineers. Instead, in the U.S labor force, there is approximately less than 1 female engineer for every 10 males.[citation needed] According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2011, 13.6% of those employed in Architecture and engineering occupations were women.[23]

Further studies have also shown that a lack of pre-degree training in high school did not sufficiently explain women engineer's dropout rates later in college.[14][16] Analyses of males' and females' grades revealed that, on average, women who had dropped out of engineering programs were either approximately as qualified or even more qualified than their male peers who continued their studies. Additionally, surveyed female dropouts revealed that very few (approximately 9.8% to 11.5%) actually dropped out because they viewed the work as too difficult.[17][22] Among their primary reasons for dropping were: loss of interest in the field, the inability to see themselves as professional engineers, inappropriate behavior from male peers, and the highly pressured environment professional engineers worked under.[24] A phenomenon called "stereotype threat" may also help explain women's educational outcomes. Because of existing stereotypes regarding women's ability to excel in mathematics-intensive coursework, they are sometimes said to perform worse than they originally would have had the stereotypes not existed.[25]

Workplace outcomes[edit]

According to Hersch, a significant number of corporations have increased the number of women engineers hired in the past couple of decades in response to political and social pressures.[26] In addition to their engineering expertise, women engineers are said to bring unique caring and non-technical problem solving skills along with an enlarged customer support base. Typically preceding these management changes were other policy shifts such as: 1) a company move from heavy to light manufacturing; 2) a greater emphasis on service and professional jobs; 3) improved working conditions, and 4) a general improvement of women’s status on the job.[26][27]

Overall, however, engineering is said to remain a highly gender-stratified occupation.[3][12][17][26] Among the engineers currently employed, men substantially outnumber women. On average, men are also said to hold higher supervisory and management positions than females, whose promotion prospects are usually more limited.[26][27][28] This reason, family and child obligations, and layoffs combined to account for a drop-out rate of approximately 20% among all female engineers from 1982-1990—a statistic over twice of that of men.[27]

It has been suggested by Crompton and Sanderson that discrimination in high-level technical jobs is actually decreasing on the whole.[3] Moreover, they suggest that equal-opportunities legislation ensures that men and women with appropriate human capital are treated equally in recruitment chances. Direct and indirect forms of exclusion were no longer said to be significant in sustaining gender segregation in engineering positions.[3] Statistically, gender pay gaps in engineering are actually lower than the national average. In STEM jobs, female wages are approximately 84% of men’s, compared to 71% in non-STEM jobs.[3][7][26] Moreover, it has also been stated that traditionally stereotypical images of engineering as “dirty”, “rugged”, or “manly” jobs are gradually being eroded—opening employment opportunities for prospective women nationwide.[27][29][30]

However, recent evidence suggests that gender discrimination is still a significant issue affecting women’s confidence and performance in STEM careers. According to Logel, interacting with sexist men may trigger a stressed-induced phenomenon called “social identity threat” in women.[31] Women engineers who faced regular exposure to sexist men on the job were said perform worse on aptitude tests than women who weren’t exposed to such individuals. While women who worked in low-stress environments reported higher levels of confidence and self-fulfillment, discriminated women were reportedly more likely to suppress their feelings and/or let their problems go unannounced.[31] Such behavior is said to be detrimental to both the women engineers themselves and the workplace, where sexist behavior is likely to persist.

Initiatives to promote engineering to women[edit]

As science and engineering have become more pervasive in society, women's participation rates in these fields have not seen a proportionate increase.[1][24] According to Cuny and Aspray, this may potentially result in a lack of women's talent in the fields, which may further reduce employment opportunities for both employer and employee [24] In order to make engineering more appealing to young women, a broader acceptance criteria into such programs has been proposed.[24] Specifically, admissions boards are encouraged to take other admissions factors into account such as: extracurricular accomplishments, applicants' desire to be admitted into the program, and communication skills. Additionally, it has been strongly suggested that admissions boards prioritize ethnic diversity.[24][32]

Research has revealed that high school- and college-age women commonly see the STEM environment as a "chilly, male-dominated" environment that is highly impersonal and unsympathetic to women's unique needs.[2][14][29][30] "Social coping" has thus been a mechanism which has been cited to help women deal with the challenges and stress associated with engineering's rigorous coursework and careers.[29] Multiple regression analysis has revealed that high levels of social coping were a stronger predictor of commitment to staying in engineering studies for women than men. Put more simply, women who used social coping were less likely than men (who were actually found to be more likely) to drop out of college engineering programs. Consequently, school teachers, staff, parents, and other figures have been encouraged to provide a more accommodating environment for social coping.[29][32]

An increase in influential female role models has also been cited as a way to increase women's engineering enrollment rates.[30] surveys collected among 141 female engineering students across the country have shown that many women who placed high confidence levels in their math and science ability also had parents who modeled less traditional gender roles. Thus, to increase women's enrollment and retention rates in engineering, scholars have suggested that a de-emphasis away from the highly popularized "nuclear family" model is crucial.[2][16][18] The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) was established in May 27, 1950[9] by Elsie Eaves as a non-profit educational and service organization that attempted both to raise awareness of female engineers and increase their enrollment rates.[12] SWE held their first meeting with 50 engineers at Cooper Union in NJ.[9] With membership now exceeding 17,000 members in over 300 student organizations across the United States, the SWE's principal aims are to inform female students about opportunities in the field of engineering and to encourage female engineers to attain high levels of achievement.

Notable American women engineers (in alphabetical order)[edit]

Organizations to promote female engineering[edit]

  • Society of Women Engineers[SWE)] – Nonprofit educational organization founded in 1950. SWE is the world’s largest advocate and catalyst for change

for women in engineering and technology. Membership currently numbers 38,000.

  • Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology – Nonprofit organization founded by computer scientist Anita Borg in 1997. Institute's primary aim is to recruit, retain, and advance women in technology.
  • Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing – A series of conferences designed in 1994 to bring research and career interests of women in computing to mainstream society. Currently a subset of the Anita Borg Institute, and the world's largest gathering of women in computing.
  • IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) is one of the largest international professional organizations dedicated to promoting women engineers and scientists and inspiring girls around the world to follow their academic interests to a career in engineering.
  • Robogals – International student-run organization that aims to significantly increase the number of young women pursuing engineering as their future careers. Founded at University of Melbourne in July 1988, and has strong emphasis on robotics and electrical engineering.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Rossi, Alice 1965
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Polacheck, Soloman 1978
  3. ^ a b c d e Graham, 2005
  4. ^ Pendleton, 1978
  5. ^ a b Montinelli, 1976
  6. ^ a b c Cole, 1981
  7. ^ a b Cummings,1970
  8. ^ Freckman, 1975
  9. ^ a b c Hatch, Sybil E. (2006-01-01). Changing Our World: True Stories of Women Engineers. ASCE Publications. ISBN 9780784408353.
  10. ^ a b c National Science Foundation, 2011
  11. ^ a b c National Society of Professional Engineers, 2004
  12. ^ a b c Society of Women Engineers, 2012
  13. ^ ASEE Engineering by the Numbers Report, 2016
  14. ^ a b c d e Vrcelj and Krishnan, 2008
  15. ^ a b c d Corell, 2001
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h Haines and Wallace,2002
  17. ^ a b c d e Seymore, 1995
  18. ^ a b c d Goldman and Hewitt, 1976
  19. ^ Alon, Sigal 2015
  20. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-6usiN4uoA&list=PLytTJqkSQqtr7BqC1Jf4nv3g2yDfu7Xmd&index=19
  21. ^ http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
  22. ^ a b c Seymore, 1999
  23. ^ "Women in the Labor Force: A Databook" (PDF).
  24. ^ a b c d e Cuny and Aspray, 2000
  25. ^ Ceci and Williams, 2010
  26. ^ a b c d e Hersh, Marion 2000
  27. ^ a b c d Preston, Anne 1994
  28. ^ Devine, Fiona 1992
  29. ^ a b c d Morganson and Jones, 2010
  30. ^ a b c Bona and Kelly, 2010
  31. ^ a b Logel, Christine 2009
  32. ^ a b Milgrim, 2011
  33. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Women At Work Museum.
  34. ^ "Twelve Days: Bertha Lamme was first female engineering grad". Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University. 18 December 2013.
  35. ^ "Westinghouse Official Dies in Retirement". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 23 April 1949.
  36. ^ Williams, Jasmin K. (March 21, 2013). "Mary Golda Ross: The first Native American female engineer". Amsterdam News. New York. Archived from the original on April 10, 2013. Retrieved March 29, 2013. (Subscription required (help)).


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