Government, industry and educators are working hard to encourage
more young women to pursue careers in science, engineering and technology.
Unfortunately, women continue to be a minority in these high-paid, challenging
The good news is that progress is being made on many fronts. But there's
still a long way to go.
"We haven't solved this problem," says Penny Rheingans. "If you look at
the engineering disciplines, the percentage of women has traditionally been
tiny, but it has been steadily rising very slowly over the last couple of
Rheingans is director of the Center for Women and Information Technology
(CWIT) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"If you look at the computing profession, and you compare where we are
now to where we were in the '80s, [there is] half the percentage of women,"
Rheingans says. "We haven't changed the direction of that yet. We don't have
a handle, society-wide, on what we can do to change this."
CWIT and other organizations are doing their best to address the gap. A
wide range of programs is being offered in an effort to reach out to young
women and girls.
CWIT deals with computer science, computer engineering, information systems,
chemical engineering and mechanical engineering. These are some of the high-tech
fields in which far fewer than 50 percent of workers are women.
"Nationally, there aren't very many women in those fields," says Rheingans.
"National numbers in those fields go from about 10 percent to about 35 percent,
where chemical and biochemical engineering is the high point, and mechanical
and computer engineering tend to be the low points."
"There are a lot of reasons why girls and young women become discouraged.
Some of it is blatant and some of it is subtle," says Robin Berk Seitz. She's
chair of the Girls in Technology committee, a committee of Women in Technology.
"I think exposure is, of course, very important, letting the young women
know what's out there, so that they don't think that becoming involved in
a technology field is only sitting behind a desk programming at a computer
all day," says Berk Seitz. "So one of the things that Women in Technology
does, through speakers series and other types of events, is expose the students
to the variety of professions and fields that are available."
The Women's Technology Program (WTP) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(MIT) accepts 60 American high school girls each year. It takes students who
have just completed Grade 11. The program wants to reach the girls before
they apply to college in fall of their senior year so they will apply to schools
with engineering departments.
"[We] try to get them to realize that the skills they have already can
be applied to engineering, and that they could really enjoy doing engineering,"
says Cynthia Skier. She's WTP's program director. "We realized that there
were an increasing number of girls who, at the high school level, are doing
extremely well in math and science... and yet they may not be aware of what
engineering is or that engineering careers use those skills."
The program seems to be working. "Of the ones we've been tracking who have
declared college majors, over 60 percent of them are in some field of engineering
or computer science," says Skier. "And about another 22 percent are in math
Skier notes that these girls started out being very talented in math and
"They were probably already thinking about engineering a little bit when
they applied to our program because that's why they wanted to come," says
Skier. "But the fact that they're ending up in engineering careers and computer
science careers is very exciting for us."
For girls to choose technology careers, they must be able to visualize
themselves in those careers. That's an important part of WTP.
"The fact that WTP is taught by female MIT graduate and undergraduate students,
I think, has a lot to do with the success of the program," says Skier. "Because
those MIT students are the best role models and mentors for those girls at
this particular decision point.
"They're usually surprised to see that computer science and electrical
engineering are solving issues in medicine, whether it's technology for surgery
or doing drug testing on [computer] chips rather than on animals or human
beings," says Skier.
"We try to show the WTP students some of the ways that engineering positively
impacts people's lives because many of these girls want a career that will
help solve world problems in energy, environment and medicine," Skier adds.
"It's not just technology for technology's sake."
Showing how technology helps people is a key factor in attracting girls
to technology careers.
"I think one of the things that makes programs for girls... most effective
is making sure that whatever is taught is connected with their values," says
Elana Brief. She is president of an organization for women in science and
The organization's Ms Infinity program matches up girls with female mentors
in the sciences, in whatever field the girl is interested in. It brings women
in science and technology careers into high schools to discuss their careers.
And it brings female scientists into classrooms to do hands-on activities
with the students.
When girls decide to pursue technology careers, everyone benefits. Society
needs workers in these highly skilled fields. And these are high-paying, challenging
"People in the sciences make more money than people in the arts," says
Brief. "And if we have implicit barriers in our society that prevent girls
from going into higher paying fields like the sciences, we're not acting in
ways that are consistent with ideals of social justice where there's equity
between men and women."
But that's not the best reason more women should pursue technology careers,
according to Brief.
"The most compelling argument for me is a 'better science' argument," she
says. "Having women in science makes science better."
Rheingans agrees. "If you look at what characteristics you need for solutions
to complex problems, it really helps to have diversity of experiences, life
paths [and] viewpoints in order to make sure that the technology that's developed
Rheingans offers the example of airbags. When airbags for cars were developed,
design teams were all male. Their design models assumed the average passenger
was 200 pounds and almost six feet tall. So they designed the airbags for
this "typical" passenger.
"What this means then," says Rheingans, "is that when you deploy them in
a society with a much wider range of characteristic people, you get those
airbags killing a lot of children and small women, because their needs and
their characteristics were never considered in the design process.
"So you get better technology if you have design teams that are diverse,
and this isn't just about gender," Rheingans adds. "This is about race, this
is about class, this is about life experiences."
The conclusion is clear. When more women are drawn to technology careers,
we all win.
Women's Technology Program at MIT
Offers high school girls the chance to explore engineering and
computer science through hands-on classes, labs and team projects
Women in Technology
Offers leadership development, networking, mentoring and technology
Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine
Advocates for increasing women's participation in science, engineering
Women in Technology International
Hosts a variety of networking events
Offers profiles, career options and more
15 Female Scientists Who Changed the World
Lists the female scientists and their accomplishments