Championing Women in Engineering - Tackling the Diversity Challenge

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Fri Apr 5 2024

P_Women in Engg_blog image © Springer Nature 2024


Author: Guest contributor

Why are there still too few American women in engineering? What can we do about it?

If engineering is about solving problems — and making systems work — then one problem that, as a discipline, it needs to solve is this: How do we retain more American women and girls in engineering? Recent efforts to recruit more women into STEM, math, and engineering have borne fruit; but these women and girls are still not choosing engineering as a career. So — why? And what can — and should — we do about it? In this blog post, Jill S. Tietjen lists possible diagnoses for what could be standing between women and careers in engineering, and suggests possible ways to re-engineer the system (so to speak), so that engineering, as a discipline, works better for everyone.

Women in Engineering in the U.S.: Why so Few Still?

In my 45 years of working to get more women into engineering and writing about women in engineering, two statistics have stuck with me more than any others:

Five — the total number of Ph.D.s across every field of engineering awarded to women around the entire U.S. in 1968

1972 — the first time that the percentage of women graduating with B.S. degrees across all fields of engineering in the U.S. reached one percent (this was the year that I graduated from high school). 

Let’s look at two more numbers:

  • 15.3 — the percentage of B.S. engineering degrees awarded to women across all fields of engineering in 1989
  • 23.6 — the percentage of B.S. engineering degrees awarded to women across all fields of engineering in 2021

This means from 1972 to 1989 (17 years), the percentage of women increased at a rapid compound annual growth rate of 17.4% But during the next 32 years, the compound annual growth rate was only a sluggish 1.4%. To me, this is stagnation and disheartening. 

I worked on a task force for the National Academy of Engineering 1997-1999, where our optimistic target was 50-50 by 2020. Obviously that target was not achieved in the workplace, including in the critical area of academia. The percentage of women engineering faculty in the U.S. was 18.5% in 2021. The percentage of women engineers in the overall workplace is around 14%. 

How and why are there still so few women in engineering in the U.S.? 

Unfortunately, we still don’t know or understand all the reasons why large numbers of women are not pursuing an engineering education or career but some things we do know.

For many years it was thought that the math and science pipeline — often approximated by the gender gap in high school calculus classes was a significant contribution to why there weren’t more women in engineering. However, girls and boys are now taking calculus in equal proportions — yet the percentage of women pursuing an engineering education has barely budged. Thus, the math and science pipeline issue could be considered resolved but the women in engineering conundrum remains.

Recruitment and retention efforts directed at “girls and women” need to recognize that all women are not the same. For example, women of color and their experiences and expectations can be expected to differ significantly vis a vis those of majority women. A finding that is supported by the research is that while boys do not seem to need to be recruited into engineering, girls do. 

Almost all the studies on retention for engineering undergraduates have focused on the retention of women. Additional studies are needed that examine the retention of both men and women to ascertain the reasons why individuals switch majors or leave college all together to determine if there are gender differences. In addition, much more work is needed to identify the causes for why women leave the engineering workforce after successfully completing their undergraduate degree. Although work/family conflict is often identified as the major cause, that may not be correct. Some studies have shown that women leave engineering because barriers to women’s career success are tolerated by work environments, the women felt unable to achieve their career goals, or because the masculine culture of engineering was not comfortable. 

The research is not conclusive or complete about the work environment for women, particularly in corporate America. Anecdotal evidence is that women experience microaggressions and sexism in the workplace. Promotions for women are frequently limited both by women’s choices and by implicit bias. In addition, men generally don’t face sexual harassment in the workplace and are welcomed by their colleagues. 

The existential argument is still ongoing with regard to increasing the number of women in engineering: do we change the women, or do we make structural changes in the engineering world? It appears that changing the women has not fixed the problem. 

Thus, it seems we need to focus on making structural changes in the engineering world. These structural changes might include addressing implicit biases and affinity biases, ensuring that the compensation for leaders incorporates rewards for successful recruiting and retention of diverse populations, and making sure that mentoring is available to all. 

Why is it an issue that there are still so few women in engineering in the U.S.?

We have many challenges to face globally from climate change to aging infrastructure to electrification to food production. We need as many bright minds as we can find across gender, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, and nationality. The world cannot afford to ignore the talents, solely because of the packaging in which those talents are found. In fact, those talents must be harnessed to solve our global problems.

For further information: Meiksins, Peter, Ph.D., and Peggy Layne, P.E., F.SWE, “Literature Review — Women in Engineering: Analyzing 20 Years of Social Science Literature,” SWE Magazine.

About the author
Jill Tietjen © Springer Nature

Jill S. Tietjen, P.E., is an author, international speaker, and electrical engineer. She has spent her career in the electric utility industry. The series editor for the Springer Women in Engineering and Science series, her 15th book, Duty Calls: Lessons Learned from an Unexpected Life of Service, was released March 5, 2024. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Tietjen has been inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame and the Colorado Authors’ Hall of Fame and elected to the National Academy of Construction.


Author: Guest contributor

Guest Contributors include Springer Nature staff and authors, industry experts, society partners, and many others. If you are interested in being a Guest Contributor, please contact us via email:

Related Tags: