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Secrets of the 13%: How Female Engineers Secure Seats at the Table

By Sandra Garby, Co-Founder, President & VP of Operations, Vizinex

The number of women in engineering has not increased since the early 2000s. What will it take to add more female engineers to the workforce, and how can they find success?

We need engineers. From household appliances and fiber optics to deteriorating roadways and water shortages, engineers meet the needs of individual consumers and society at large with new products and innovative designs that make life better. Despite engineering’s status as a burgeoning field with a high employment rate, it is perhaps the most male-dominated of STEM professions, with women comprising only 13% of the engineering workforce.

Perhaps more staggering is that while women make up 20% of students graduating with an engineering degree, 40% of those female students either quit or never go on to enter the profession. The primary factor? According to a 2015 study that followed female engineering at some of the country’s top programs, sexism and stereotypes are common deterrents.

How can we empower female engineering students to overcome these obstacles, and help clear some of the hurdles for good? Here are three ways female engineers and their support networks can engineer success.

Nurture Early Interest in STEM

As babies, we are natural scientists, trying to make sense of our surroundings through our senses and to solve new and confusing problems through trial and error. But for many of today’s children, this scientific curiosity dissipates quickly. In fact, research has shown that by fourth grade, a third of boys and girls have lost interest in science, and by eighth grade, almost half have either lost interest or deemed it irrelevant to their education or future plans.

Initiatives across the country – and around the world – are being developed to better integrate STEM into elementary curricula. Through these improvements, it is hoped that we can nurture early interest, help students to identify and develop their knowledge base and provide opportunities to practice math and science in everyday life.

I was fortunate to have math and science teachers (both men and women) who helped me recognize my potential. I also had a role model at home. My father was an electrical tester, and instead of making household repairs on his own, he included me in that process. Problem-solving was an inherent part of how I was raised. Of course, not all parents are able to pass down this level of knowledge to their kids, but we can all play a role in kindling that curiosity in the young people in our lives.

Next time you’re headed to a child’s birthday party, consider buying a construction set or science kit over a stuffed animal or video game. When your car needs repair, take your child with you and ask the mechanic if he or she can explain what went wrong and how it was fixed. Give the young people in your life – boys and girls alike – a lens through which to see the problems and the solutions in the world, and to take inspiration from both.

Get Out of the Classroom

There is no denying that there are strides to be made both within our education system and our culture to address the sexism present in engineering today. Each of us plays a role in preventing these unhealthy patterns from repeating into the future. At the same time, I encourage female engineering students who feel disheartened to step outside the classroom to gain both perspective and confidence.

As an undergraduate in Alfred University’s ceramic engineering program, a rigorous course load ensured I had the hard skills needed to succeed, but it was my extracurricular activities that helped me find my stride. As an upperclassman, I managed the school’s biggest community fundraising event, Hot Dog Day. The event lasted just one weekend, but I spent the entire semester recruiting volunteers, forming and leading committees, managing a budget, and garnering donations from local businesses. That same year I also chaired the concerts committee for the Students Activities Board, where I got my first crack at negotiation, when working through an agent to book event headliner Corey Hart (of “Sunglasses at Night” fame). Finally, I rounded out my extracurricular activities working campus security for several semesters and eventually becoming a supervisor, where I managed 30 students on staff, put together schedules for 24-hour coverage, submitted hours to payroll and provided support as incidents arose.

None of these activities were recommended by my engineering professors, but they were equally as important to getting me to where I am today. By taking on these responsibilities, I had to learn to communicate effectively, negotiate, make snap decisions and develop into a self-assured leader. These are skills that men and women in any profession stand to benefit from, but for female engineers, they can harden your resilience, fuel your confidence and help you maintain momentum in a male-dominated industry.

Find Your Niche

People get into engineering for different reasons. And that’s the beauty of the field – there are so many applications and so many needs.

From chemical to environmental and civil to mechanical, you’ll find that, like all professions, there are particular engineering roles that make the best use of your personality and your skillset. There are certainly exceptions to these generalities, but women’s communication styles are often well suited for collaborative roles where listening and empathy are required. For me, I found my sweet spot as an applications engineer in the technical service department. Like many other female engineers, I found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with strong, often male, personalities, in my day-to-day duties. These individuals have a tendency to dominate team-based projects, but I found that by harnessing my confidence and actively contributing, I was able to maintain equal footing and earn the respect of my colleagues. I felt challenged by the high-stakes problem-solving required to quickly troubleshoot client issues but also saw my diplomacy skills being put to good work. It inspired me to go on to get my MBA and eventually put me on the path to entrepreneurship.

For other female engineers, it might be more critical to find the right company or organization. Surveys have shown that women are often driven by a desire to practice socially conscious engineering, and to help resolve humanitarian crises around the globe. If this is a driving force, then the career search may require looking beyond university resources and the corporate world. Many mission-driven engineers find their calling at nonprofit or government agencies, while others begin their own ventures through crowdsourcing options like Kickstarter. We all go into this business for different reasons, and it’s important to recognize whatever that spark is for you and to follow wherever it leads.

Try, Try Again

Man or woman, becoming an engineer requires a good deal of intestinal fortitude. However gratifying it can be to solve a problem, rarely do our designs crack the code on the first try. It’s about trial and error. It’s a continuous process of building and rebuilding, of falling and getting back up.

For many of us – and often for female engineers – this is work mimicking life. Although I worked my way up to a great position with a supportive boss, I was also laid off, later started a company, and then saw that company close its door before finally founding the company I help manage today. I can tell you from experience that it won’t always be easy to pick up and start over again. But with each failure, I did as any engineer must do. I examined the cracks in the structure, reflected on the integrity of my design and then … I rebuilt.

 

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