Ever since I filled out my university application papers, I’ve been faced with the cocktail party question, “So, why did you decide to study engineering?” It’s not surprising, of course, given the low number of women who choose to enter the fields of math or engineering. I’ve actually been asked this question so often that I have a stock answer which I can pull out without having to think about it: When I was considering my field of study, I was equally drawn to the arts and the sciences, but it made more sense to prepare myself to work in a field where the jobs were. Engineering seemed a good fit, and still provided a sort of outlet for my creative impulses. Plus, it would be easier to pursue art and music as a hobby, rather than anything scientific; it would be much harder to find the resources to pursue any scientific interests on my own. Why electrical engineering? I’d heard it involved more math, something I was drawn to.

 The national average of female undergraduate students in engineering programs is twenty percent. There has been, and continues to be, much debate over the reasons why women are under-represented in some scientific fields, particularly engineering. Both law and medicine have been traditionally male-dominated, yet some projections indicate 40% of lawyers and 30% of doctors will be women by 2010. That number still hovers around 10% for practicing engineers.

I’m not going to argue the causes for this; I’m not a sociologist and won’t pretend to be. I’d rather focus on the positive changes that we can see all around us, if we look for them. For instance, look at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science. It has an excellent program, women@SCS, whose mission is “to create, encourage, and support academic, social, and professional opportunities for women in computer science and to promote the breadth of the field and its diverse community.” Laudable indeed. And more notably, it seems to be having some effect. Close to 50% of the computer science undergraduate population is apparently female.

I also found an amazing headline while doing some research for this post: All-Female Chemical Engineering Graduating Class at Caltech This Year. Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected to read a story like this for the next twenty to fifty years. And it’s not even all that recent: this was the Class of 2005! The women who were part of this class in fact did not see themselves as anything unique, either. One, Haluna Gunterman, commented, "I doubt if any of us thought much about sitting in chemical engineering classes that were 100 percent female as opposed to 35 percent for most other courses; it felt no different… And while we may think nothing of it, there is some fun in being able to see people's shocked expressions when they hear of a 100 percent female graduating class, in [chemical] engineering of all majors, at Caltech of all places."

Programs aimed at supporting women in engineering and mathematics abound, in both academia and industry. I was pleased to discover that a Google search for “women in engineering” returns, as the top result, a link to the University of Waterloo’s (and my alma mater’s) Women in Engineering program. The IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) group, of personal interest to me, is “the largest international professional organization dedicated to promoting women engineers and scientists.” Even General Motors has its own Women in Engineering initiative, and companies like GM and Ford regularly contribute to educational projects and scholarships that support women in the sciences.

Here at Maplesoft this month, we will be hosting the local chapter of CAGIS (Canadian Association of Girls in Science) for an educational event about physical modeling, MapleSim, and what it’s like to work in a high-tech company. Girls aged 7 to 16 who are interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are invited to join us to learn how engineers can model and simulate physical systems, such as robots, before they are built. It promises to be an exciting afternoon!

It’s great to see such encouraging examples of change in action. I’d love to hear from some of our readers about their own experiences – perhaps your daughter is a mathematician, or you are a female engineer yourself? Please feel free to let us know in the comments section below!

Please Wait...