Earlier in June, Springer Nature launched a campaign to celebrate women’s achievements in engineering which highlighted nine of our authors and editors who shared their thoughts on why they chose to become engineers and the advice they would offer to young women entering the field.
As some have questioned why we need to celebrate women in engineering, it made me think about the reasons behind not only this campaign, but the worldwide movement that created International Women in Engineering Day (officially in its 2nd year under UNESCO patronage), the dozens of professional societies for women engineers, and, at its core, whether or not this is (still?) an issue.
There are a couple of aspects to consider: are women studying engineering? Are women working as engineers? Are women staying engineers? Historically speaking, women have been granted degrees in engineering since 1876 (Elizabeth Bragg, from the University of California, Berkley being the first). The trend didn’t really catch on until well after WWII, itself a turning point with many women entering the engineering fields without formal training to take up roles left empty by men at war. In the 1970s, universities around the world began to accept women on a wider scale, for example, Jill Tietjen, series editor for the Springer book series “Women in Engineering and Science”. Her comprehensive history of women in engineering serves as the premier book in the series here.
The number of women both pursuing an education in and working in the STEM fields is growing and the gender gap is decreasing.
In her book, Women in STEM Disciplines (Springer, 2017), Claudine Schmuck presents the global picture for the above questions, tackling some “accepted” truths, and effectively looking at the wider trends of women in STEM fields. Her detailed analysis paints a positive picture: the number of women both pursuing an education in and working in the STEM fields is growing and the gender gap is decreasing. The 10 years to 2013 saw an increase of 80% in number of women graduating in a STEM subject, and women as an overall percentage of all STEM graduates (including medicine) is now approaching 50%1. There are significant variations globally in the growth rates with the percentage of women STEM graduates increasing from 12 % to 25% in Middle East & North Africa, South-West Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa and from 14% to 29% in Central and Eastern Europe but virtually no growth in Latin America, North America and Western Europe. But unfortunately seeing the full effect of these achievements is being hampered by a number of factors.
Even in the US, only 24.7% of computer science professionals and 15.1% of engineering professionals are women, although women constitute close to half of the total workforce.
Social norms and cultural barriers including discriminatory family codes, restricted resources, legal and institutional barriers and to top it off, a lack of access to local role models, have been shown to inhibit female graduates’ access to employment2, particularly in some of the countries experiencing the highest booms in female STEM education. While this has not had the same impact in Western Europe and North America, where the “gender gap” in the labour market is almost nil, the percentage of women actively participating in the market in the STEM fields is still very low. Even in the US, only 24.7% of computer science professionals and 15.1% of engineering professionals are women, although women constitute close to half of the total workforce (U.S. Department of Labor 2016)3.
To compound the low numbers transitioning from studies to work, “the attrition rate for STEM graduated women … reaches 40% [compared with] that of those holding a degree in management or law, or economics which reaches only 9%”4. Reasons for this difference vary widely, but can be categorized broadly as:
- (1) lack of career expectations
- (2) the impossibility to achieve work/life balance
- (3) organization and environment5
This is a huge loss not only for women, but for companies because, as Dr. Lucienne Blessing explains, “Research shows that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to perform better, in particular if leadership is gender-balanced (McKinsey).”
Women’s achievements in STEM fields need to be harnessed to raise awareness, create role models and foster a more inclusive culture.
That’s why we launched our campaign. It aims, via a series of interviews with female engineers who love their work and their jobs, to create role models in this field, provide sound advice to women looking to enter the field, and paint a positive picture for the next generation of women in engineering. It is only a start but one which we encourage others to also get behind in order to see real change in this field.