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Where are the women?

Engineers should take blame for not getting out there to be proactive in promulgating ourselves.

I asked my seven-year-old daughter today what she thought a scientist is: She gave a very cogent answer. Then I asked her what an engineer is: She thought that was someone who “fixes cars and things.” At least she didn't come up with the “running-trains” definition that plagues so many of us when we tell people what our profession is. But while she has career choices on her mind — even today — they involve professions such as explorer and police officer, but obviously not engineer. Now that she knows her dad is an engineer, we can have a reasonable conversation at a later date about what it means to be one.

Have you given any thought to why there are so few female engineers in electronics? There are plenty of female scientists, and a large percentage of computer science graduates are women. But in electronics, the numbers are mind-bogglingly small. When you tighten the defined area to broadcasting there are even fewer female engineers, and off the top of my head only two come to mind.

When I was teaching electronics/broadcast engineering a few decades ago, we saw an occasional female undergraduate, often as not employed by a government department. Data on European college entries indicates that the number of women applying for engineering courses is 25 percent to 35 percent, depending on the country, but that number falls in electronics. In the United States, the percentage of female engineering graduates is down in the single digits. Peer pressure, career guidance counselors and parents must take at least some of the blame for not explaining the engineering profession, perhaps because they do not understand it themselves. As a body, engineers should take blame for not getting out there to be proactive in promulgating ourselves. Even for me, although I had no doubts that I wanted to be an engineer, I came under academic and peer pressure to study the “pure” sciences. I wish there would have been someone I could have gone to for some support and information.

I know a few female engineers in the semiconductor industry and — to a woman — they have said that the first three months in the work environment were hell while they had to prove to their male colleagues that they knew what they were doing. That is probably true in any work environment where a newcomer is different from the incumbents, but in this particular arena the situation is pronounced. Looking at the career paths of several of these people, they must have been doing rather better than their male peers.

There are numerous reports that women generally take less interest in mathematics during and after puberty. Do these young ladies also assume (if they know what engineering is) that this has got to be a boy “geek” thing? And why the falloff in mathematical interest? I have heard some women say that math is a useless skill when you get on to algebra, calculus and so on. They only believe you need enough to get you through the daily grind of buying and selling, measuring and timing. That certainly suggests to me that they have been the victims of a dose of extremely bad math teaching — one that may be at least partly to blame for the scarcity of women engineers.

When I was about 15 and going through the third math teacher of the year (after losing the first to death and the second to “running off with a barmaid”), I realized that what I was being fed was totally formula-based. Learn this equation, this solution, this relationship. It wasn't teaching at all. We were being trained that if you parroted enough you would pass your exams. Instead I understood that mathematics was a philosophy, an approach, a challenge. I didn't look back, and I had no problems with anything mathematical for the rest of school, through college and into the workplace.

My daughter appears to have absolutely no problem with her grade-level math and she loves numbers and playing with them. I got told off by a high school teacher for explaining and letting her do more complex addition than her grade, but it doesn't seem to have given her a complex of any kind, and I don't think it will be harmful to explain to her what it means that we are going to buy 2E7 pavers for the front yard this week.

Of course she had the final word in our conversation today when, after a few sentences of explanation about engineers, she declared, “Then I'll be the first one!”

Paul McGoldrick is an independent consultant based on the West Coast.