Research shows low female participation in engineering, other STEM fields

Current engineering students have seen an improvement in the industry’s diversity.

The engineering industry is suffering from low female participation more than any other STEM — science, technology, mathematics and engineering — fields, according to recent research.

A study conducted by Gary Salton, a Michigan-based researcher and chief of research and development at Professional Communications, found that about 301,000 of 2.3 million engineers, about 12.9 percent, are female. Female engineers had about half the participation rates compared to women in other science-based fields. Salton concluded that the reason for this unequal ratio was the male engineering problem-solving style.

In 2014, about 17.4 percent of students enrolled in the MU College of Engineering were female. An anonymous $330,000 donation recently helped launch a new center, the Women in Engineering Center, to promote increased female participation in engineering.

Salton’s research asserts that female engineers tend to be more disciplined and process-oriented than male engineers, which results in conflict in problem-solving styles. Salton attributed the discouragement of female contribution in engineering to the low tolerance for a variation from male engineers’ problem solving style embedded in the intellectual process.

Linda Godwin, professor of physics and astronomy at MU and a former NASA astronaut, expressed the importance of diversifying the engineering field.

“To find your best people, you just want to have everybody,” she said. “You want to cast the net as broad as possible. If women aren’t there, we’re missing out on 50 percent of the potential innovation.”

Godwin compared the role of women in science to the process of finding the best way to travel to Mars. She said if women are discouraged or left out of the equation, one might leave out the person with the solution.

Salton said in order for men to truly see the value of women, it has to be reduced to dollars and cents, or the well being of everyone involved.

“When males feel that females are contributing something that betters their life, that is when the female is going to be fully accepted and integrated,” he said.

Georgianna Victor, a junior and industrial engineering major, said that companies are trying to make a new push for diversity.

“I’ve talked to (other students) with Boeing, and they were able to talk about the way that their workforce is changing,” she said. “People who are hiring are looking for students who have more varied backgrounds.”

Victor explained that some government projects are seeing the value of diversity, going as far as to implement diversity requirements about who they hire, administering fines to those who do not follow them.

“Companies are trying to break this mold of an engineer that is a Caucasian male who is usually a bit older,” she said. “They’re trying to break that standard.”

However, Victor said that there is still much room for improvement, as some companies use loopholes to justify who they hire.

Salton said that the key to solving this issue is to train men to effectively value the female contribution. He said that companies are starting to implement this with formal team building sessions. He pointed out the importance of team building and that university curricula fail at teaching this effectively, and said it is not enough to simply assign groups to do a task.

“Unless you can show people the processes, how to take advantage of the contribution each one of those people can make, you just have a group,” Salton said. “You don’t have a team.”

Godwin reiterated the need for more women in not just engineering, but other STEM fields. While 2011 American Community Survey data analyzed by Salton showed engineering to have the lowest female proportion in STEM (13 percent), the fields of computer science (27 percent women), life and physical sciences (41 percent) and mathematics (47 percent) are imbalanced as well.

“I think the more that those of us in STEM fields can go back and communicate with young girls helps,” Godwin said. “We need to make sure that girls are aware of their options.”

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