Women in Aerospace Engineering The Buzz


Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983. Since that time, the number of women in the scientific workforce has improved, but it hasn't exactly skyrocketed. Aerospace engineering students are hoping to change that.

Aerospace engineering can be very exciting -- it is rocket science! And women's careers are taking off fast with opportunities that can be out of this world.

"There are wonderful opportunities for women in engineering, and it can be a rewarding and interesting field of study," says Amy Lang. She is an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama.

"I myself have found at times both challenging and supportive environments as a female engineer, but by far usually supportive rather than inhibitive throughout my career.

"The biggest challenge has been in balancing family life with work, but that is the case, I think, in any high-paying career," adds Lang, who has two children.

Women do face unique problems which can be difficult to share with male co-workers. "You do feel lonely sometimes. It is important to keep contact with other female engineers, both from aerospace engineering and other engineering disciplines," says Bo Tan. She is an assistant professor of aerospace engineering.

Being a Woman Can Pay Off

The lack of women in engineering can work to women's advantage in many cases.

"Federal agencies offering scholarship and job opportunities recognize the lack of women representation in engineering, and aerospace engineering has some of the lowest percentages of female participation," says Lang. She notes that this lack of female participation becomes more significant at graduate levels and beyond.

Female Students Outnumbered But Not Outperformed

Classrooms are also dominated by male students. Tan says that female students account for five to 10 percent of undergraduates and even fewer post-graduates at her university.

"Although they are outnumbered by their male peers, they usually do pretty well academically and are usually ranked high in the class," says Tan. "Young women who are interested in aerospace engineering should not be discouraged by the male-dominated work environment."

"I do know and understand that it is very challenging for women students to be in a male-dominated environment," says Keiko Nomura. She works in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California in San Diego (UCSD).

Nomura adds that it is especially challenging when dealing with subjects like airplanes and cars. Many people believe that boys are more familiar and knowledgeable in these areas. "However, there are in fact many male students who are just as unfamiliar and inexperienced with these things," she points out.

UCSD Girls Get their Motors Running

Building a formula race car may not be a stereotypical hobby for girls, but it revved up some young women engineering students in San Diego. A group of female mechanical and aerospace engineering students at UCSD entered the Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (FSAE) competition. They were the first SAE all-women's team in the nation.

The competition involves designing, building and racing an open-wheeled, formula-style race car. "The UCSD student team has in the past been active but consisted of all-male students," says Nomura.

"This group of women decided to form their own team and together, learn how to design and build a race car. ... They organized a workshop where they had a community advisor come in and give tutorials on automotive engineering."

It took a lot of time and hard work to learn about race car design and how to work and use equipment in the machine shop. The team succeded in designing and building a car which then competed against over a hundred other colleges and universities in the annual FSAE event.

Female Students Speak Out

Don't be intimidated by the guys, says Marina Selezneva. She is a fourth-year student of aerospace engineering. "All the girls that I know in engineering are doing great and get better grades than guys in general," she says.

"Plus it wouldn't be too long until they get full respect from the guys; all it takes is a couple of good marks on midterms or projects."

Irene Chan is a senior aerospace engineering student at UCSD. She is also president of the UCSD student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

"As a female engineering student, it is difficult to be taken seriously by your male peers. Some may refuse to work in a group with you because you are female; some may not want to study with you," warns Chan.

Although there are some challenges to overcome, Chan is confident that she'll be able to make a difference when she gets to work. "Female engineers bring a different perspective and skill sets that are beneficial to a male-dominated field: females are better multi-taskers and can provide effective organization; their different, nurturing outlooks of the world provides insight on topics males may not think about regarding safety in their designs or facilitating communication in a group," she says.

Links

Women in Aerospace
A great support network

Society of Women Engineers
A great place to look for scholarships, support, career guidance and more

Sally Ride Science
The first American woman in space has a special page with resources for students

American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
Learn more about the industry