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The Changing Face Of Engineering?

This month my editor asked me to look into the “changing face of engineering.” The idea was to juxtapose the stereotypical image of the engineer—the white male geek with a pocket protector—with the contemporary, diverse pool of men, women, and minorities actually working in the field in 2004. So I set to work, making a mental list of people I’d encountered while covering post production and broadcast who happened to be women or members of minority groups. (I’ve honestly seen very few pocket protectors.)
As I ran through my mental list I soon realized that while I was certainly acquainted with a number of hardcore techies who fit the non-white-male bill, they were very much the exception; in no way did this group of people constitute any sort of trend. The fact is that most of the people I’ve encountered in high-level technical positions are still white guys. Without naming names, I have to admit more than a few of them are also on the geeky side.
So I thought I’d talk to someone who didn’t fit that bill: Wendy Aylsworth, vice president, technical operations, Warner Bros. I’d run into her at a lot of events and seen her speak on a number of panels. Come to think of it, she was frequently the only woman on those panels. Aylsworth had come to her current position after having worked at Disney overseeing a team that dealt with development of digital ink and paint. Previously she’d worked in aerospace engineering at Honeywell, running a division of 100 engineers. “There are more women doing this kind of work in the entertainment business than I found in my years in aerospace,” she told me, “but there are still very few.”
Engineering: A Manly Profession
When Aylsworth studied computer science at the University of Michigan in the mid-1970s, women comprised less than 7% of the program. When she started her first job, at Lockheed Martin, there were “some men who were affronted and would make nasty comments,” she said. “Most people were receptive though. And, surprisingly, I never encountered a problem with men who were much older than I was. It was generally men my age, who were competing for the same jobs, that had a problem with me.”
Throughout her career, she admits, “Whenever I’ve changed positions I would very consciously get a short haircut and dress more butch. I’d try to be more masculine and more ‘engineeringish’ to try to prove myself as a technology person. Then, as people got to know me, I could be more myself. You’d laugh if you saw a picture of me from when I started my current job five years ago.”
Overall, Aylsworth doesn’t see a major trend toward more women filling the kinds of engineering and computer science-type jobs she’s held over the years. “You see a lot more women incomputer graphics and special effects,” she said, “but I think maybe it’s because those are more about an art form that provides women an entrée into technology. As far as engineering and computer science in general, you’re still not seeing anything like parity between men and women getting those degrees.”
In order to acquire a broader sense about the industry as a whole, I went looking for facts and figures and discovered how sensitive an issue this is. The NAB told me, “We don’t keep numbers on this.” Likewise for the SBE. The SMPTE told me they would find a member who would call me to discuss the issue. No one called me. And university admissions departments...forget about it! It’s just too sensitive an issue.
How To Grow An Engineer
The Women In Engineering (WIE) committee within the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) did have some information about the demographics of today (and tomorrow’s) engineers. Patricia Eng was particularly helpful. Eng is the technical assistant to the director at the Office of State and Tribal Programs for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as well as a graduate student at Virginia Tech majoring in science and technology studies with a concentration in policy and the sociology of science. Her role within WIE—an organization she proudly states has blossomed in three years from nothing to having 9,000 members—and her graduate studies focus particularly on demographic issues related to engineering.
As an Asian female who grew up in inner-city Chicago in the late 1960s, Eng was often told she “had two possible futures: I would either be a waitress in a Chinese restaurant or I would work in a laundry,” she recalled. “So here I am, an engineer. I work for the federal government.” But Eng finds attitudes aren’t all that different today from the 1960s. While people might not be as direct, she said, “Even now in my travels I encounter girls who are told there are things they should and shouldn’t do. Someone wouldn’t dare walk up to a young woman in the inner city in Washington, DC and tell her, ‘You’re never going to make it out of the District and you’re never going to amount to anything.’ Instead they might say, ‘A job at the local department store would be good and you’ll get benefits.’ You see the subtle difference? It’s not as direct as when I was younger, but it’s still subliminally telling them what they are supposed to be. The thing I love about WIE is that we view every female as an untapped resource. And we try to expose that resource to the fact that they have a choice about what they want to do with their future.”
For 40 years the IEEE has been a driving force behind Engineers Week, in which people in the field take time to do outreach for children at schools and in public spaces. Since its inception, WIE has expanded on this concept with Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. “It’s important,” Eng stressed, “to get the word out about what engineering is. There is a lot of stereotyping out there. I do cool things. Most engineers do. Some of them are nerdy. Most of us aren’t any nerdier than anybody else. Do I envision getting more women engineers in the workplace in the near future? Yes. Do I envision that being much more than 20%? No. It takes 20 years to grow an engineer. You’ve got to start with girls in the second or third grade and help them realize for themselves [that] math is fun.”
The number of minorities (excluding Asians) receiving undergrad degrees in science and engineering has crept up slightly, but the percentages have actually dropped. Dr. Daryl Chubin, senior vice president of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) explains: “There are more minorities in the total pool of people receiving all degrees, but the percentages of underrepresented minorities receiving degrees in science engineering is down. Universities have been slow to institute programs to provide support for students of color.”
“It’s a societal thing,” said Aylsworth. “We have to encourage girls to understand it’s OK to be bright and smart in an area like engineering. It’s OK. Scientists aren’t necessarily geeky. And, besides, there are geeky artists, too.”