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
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
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
"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
"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.
Women in Aerospace
A great support network
Society of Women Engineers
A great place to look for scholarships, support, career guidance
Sally Ride Science
The first American woman in space has a special page with resources
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
Learn more about the industry