We have all heard the stories and seen pictures of women in manufacturing while the men fought in World War II (think Rosie the Riveter). Why is it, more than 70 years later, that women’s numbers in industry are still so few?
In the 1940s, widespread advertising by governments and industry encouraged housewives to fill the gaps in these roles. They made simple arguments, such as: “Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill.” Women heeded the call and succeeded in keeping the plants operating. Alas, the industry reverted to a predominantly male state when the war and advertising ended.
This real-life case study illustrates how career decisions are influenced by simple awareness, advocacy, personal encouragement, professional mentoring, and leadership opportunities. Female industrial professionals today are quick to credit these factors for their choice of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers.
Professional organizations, academia, and primary and secondary schools are making great strides in encouraging girls toward STEM professions in lieu of more “traditional” female occupations. Women returning to the workforce or changing careers midstream are also paying attention.
Why is the imbalance a problem?
We simply need more women engineers, remarks Gary May, dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). “The more diverse the field of engineering is, the more we will see innovative solutions to societal problems – problems that affect men, women, and children. We need to engage students of all genders, colors, and backgrounds to create a more robust economy.”
Women bring new points of view to the table. Examples including the minivan (a reflection of the inclusion of women engineers in the auto industry) and the evolution of voice-activated mechanisms (which originally only responded to men’s voices) are provided by Amy Freeman, assistant professor of engineering and assistant dean of Engineering Outreach and Inclusion at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State).
Career choices begin to form as early as elementary school, but the STEM gender disparity starts to become evident at the undergraduate level. While women receive over half of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences, they receive far fewer in the computer sciences (17.9%), engineering (19.3%), physical sciences (39%) and mathematics (43.1%) according to the National Girls Collaborative Project Statistics.
The challenge is not just attracting women to STEM fields, but keeping them there. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Science & Engineering Indicators, 2016, women made up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce in 2013 but only 29% of the science and engineering workforce.
Following are approaches that have successfully drawn women into this arena.
Awareness and advocacy
Elizabeth Taylor, lean engineer at Axalta Coating Systems, has been an active member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) since 2000 and is currently its Mid-Atlantic Region Governor. “As a freshman in college, I attended my first SWE meeting with a friend and since then I was hooked. It was a network and support system for my course load in chemical engineering. I've since advocated for my employers to send coworkers to region and society conferences and encouraged them to join as well,” adds Taylor.
Welding Engineer Pierrette Gorman made a mid-career transition from tailoring and is now on the board of directors of the American Welding Society (AWS). “When I investigated possible career choices and learned that welding jobs were plentiful, paid well and I would not be spending 40 hours a week in an office, I knew it was the right career for me. I think the biggest reason women do not enter the field of welding is because they were never offered the opportunity to consider it as a career.”
Student Assistant Lorna Treffert at the University of Tennessee Reliability & Maintainability Center (UT-RMC) says she would have never seriously considered this path had she not met an industrial engineer at a Women in STEM networking event at her high school. “She introduced me to a field that works with systems, logistics, optimization and, most importantly, people.”
Treffert hopes to apply her industrial engineering education to help revitalize the U.S. passenger rail industry. “It made sense for me to go into engineering because I have loved the synchronicity, comfort, and potential for sustainability of high-speed and other passenger train systems for as long as I can remember.”