Women in Engineering: Providing Pathways for Future Generations

iStock_000008675366XSmallBy Michelle Hendelman

By now, we have all heard the facts and figures about women in STEM fields. There have been gains, as evidenced by the high profile appointments of Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg to the C-Suite. However, there have also been setbacks, such as Twitter’s bold move to announce their IPO last fall without a single female on their corporate board.

There is plenty of media attention surrounding women and the boys club of Silicon Valley, but what does the bigger picture look like for women in other STEM fields, such as engineering?

A recent survey conducted by TE Connectivity found that the vast majority (87 percent) of respondents identified engineering as the leading profession sparking innovation and invention in the United States. Yet, women make up only 14 percent of the engineers in the United States. As society is recognizing the positive impact of engineering, what role will women play in sustaining the growth of this industry? Furthermore, what steps can be taken to make sure the pipeline of female engineers remains strong and consistent?

Untapped Potential
According to Jane Leipold, Senior Vice President of Global Human Resources at TE Connectivity, “Women can play a huge role in the future growth of the engineering field. Right now, there is nothing but upside potential in terms of attracting new talent.” Leipold added that as more female role models in engineering emerge, there will be a trickledown effect resulting in finding talented women interested in pursuing a career in engineering.

Attracting female engineers is only one half of the equation. The other –equally important –half of the equation is retaining women who enter the field by providing them with tools and resources that support career advancement and professional growth. Research on why women leave engineering revealed that one of the most important factors cited for driving women out of the field was workplace climate.

What’s more, one-third of women who graduated with an engineering degree never entered the field professionally due to the perception that the industry as a whole was unsupportive of women. In order to reverse the trend of women opting out of engineering, Leipold emphasized the value of investing in programs that support the advancement of women. She noted, “It is important to develop women as they move up the ladder into executive and leadership roles.”

The perception that engineering, and STEM fields in general, are not welcoming to women creates the well-documented psychological phenomenon known as “stereotype threat” that can prevent young women from entering and advancing in their careers. For example, when idea that women are not as good in STEM subjects as men is perpetuated, women will subconsciously internalize this notion and begin to lack confidence, even if they have proven their competence.

Will increasing the percentage of women in STEM fields can effectively undermine the stereotype threat and break the vicious cycle that is keeping women away in the first place?

Taking Action
“The basis for attracting young people of either gender to the engineering profession is exposure to what engineering is all about and the value that it can add to society. It is fundamental to introduce children at young ages to engineering and increase their awareness of the opportunities available in the field,” said Leipold.

This is where engagement measures like Million Women Mentors, an initiative of STEMConnector, can play a critical role in reaching girls and young women by sparking an interest in STEM fields. The stated goal of the program, which was launched in January, is to get one million STEM mentors of both genders by 2018. As a result of engaging one million mentors, the group hopes to increase the number of high school aged girls interested in pursuing STEM careers, increase the percentage of young women earning undergraduate degrees in STEM fields, and increase the amount of women who stay in STEM careers.

At TE Connectivity, Leipold noted several initiatives to engage young people and underscored the importance of companies getting involved in their communities and reaching out to children during these formative years. “We have great participation in our ‘Take Your Child to Work Day,’” noted Leipold.

She added, “We frequently host young people at the company to show them how we design products and then they participate in experiments and design projects. This hands-on approach is very effective in sparking interest in the practical applications of engineering.” Most recently, during DiscoverE’s Engineers Week in February, TE Connectivity welcomed over 30 young girls from local Girl Scout troops as part of Girl Day – a day dedicated to introducing girls to all of the exciting aspects of engineering and helping them learn all of the fun and creative ways engineering applies to everyday life.