Women: "I'm Gonna Be an Engineer"

Oct 19, 2017

Even though a little more than half of all college students are female, in engineering they comprise just 20- percent of the class. Studies suggest it’s not that girls aren’t interested in the field.   There’s more to it than that. 

A few months ago, Julia Ross became the first female Dean of Virginia Tech’s engineering department, one of the few in the country with that title. “Well I’m pretty comfortable being the only woman in a room full of men,” Ross jokes.

Ross says it’s not that girls don’t want to grow up to be engineers. “If you look at very young ages, little girls are just as interested as little boys are, in playing with certain kinds of toys and part of what happens as you move through that pipeline as young children go to school, there’s all kinds of messaging.”

Those messages are powerful even for someone like Ye Tang, who always knew she wanted to go into engineering. “In one of the courses, I was the only girl and the first time I went to the class I realized the fact that everybody is looking at me and I was so embarrassed," Tang remembered, "so I quit that class."

She later did an internship at Dominion Energy. Her work group had more women than men. There were more men in the department overall.  But that helped build her confidence. “As you gain more knowledge. As you gain more experience working with them, you learn that you have confidence in what you are doing. That’s the point. Once you get rid of the fear it doesn’t matter if you’re boys or girls."

Tang is working on energy systems to better integrate solar power into the energy grid. So is Rebecca Rye, a first year Master's student.  She points out that the field itself is changing in ways that make it more attractive to women. “It’s now becoming a research environment. Whereas before, it was very hands on and the physicality of it was, men were able to do it because they had that physical strength. Now, with industry changes and having equipment to help, that’s what’s allowing women to finally say, ‘this is something I can do, this is an environment I can go into. It’s not only about my physical strength, it’s about my mental strength and my capability of doing research and furthering the advancement of technology.'"

It’s one thing to bring more women into engineering departments. It’s another thing to keep them in engineering jobs after they graduate.  Nadya Fouad teaches educational psychology at the University Wisconin at Milwaukee.  She surveyed grads from 30 universities, including Virginia Tech and confirmed that half the women ultimately leave the profession.

"We examined the common perceptions:

'Women are leaving because they’re not confident.’ We didn’t see that.

'Women are leaving because they’re not interested.’  We didn’t see that.

‘Women are leaving because they don’t feel that they can manage work and family.’ We didn’t’ see that.

So, the ‘fix the women’ narrative is what we’re pushing back against," Fouad said.  "What’s really needed is to fix the environment."

Fouad points to the current issue around gender and jobs in Silicon Valley where toxic environments have made headlines.  But, while half of female engineers leave the profession, mostly due to their work environment, the other half stays, for the same reason, according to her study: The work environment is good They see investments in their training, and they see real opportunities for advancement.

MUSIC/Evan Mac Coll & Peggy Seeger singing “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer”