Girls Avoiding Engineering

by Lauren Hesse ‘19

 Of 24 students enrolled in aerospace engineering, 3 are female. Of 17 students enrolled in civil engineering, 2 are female. Of 39 students enrolled in digital electronics (a class focusing on electrical engineering), 8 are female. Yet, the ratio of females to males enrolled in other advanced STEM classes like AP Calculus BC and AP Chemistry is close to 50-50. Of 33 students enrolled in Medical Sciences with Clinical Applications, 30 are female. Clearly, girls are interested in science and math, so why are they not taking engineering classes?

 As one of the few girls in the Project Lead the Way (PLTW) engineering pathway here at Sherwood, I believe the problem is rooted in two main issues. One, girls lack confidence in their ability to succeed in high level math and science classes they take on the path to becoming an engineer. According to Thomas Cohan, an AP Calculus BC teacher, “some of [his] best students have been female, but many of his female students lack confidence. [He has] noticed that more girls come in to ask for clarification or for him to check their work.” From elementary school, girls expect their work to be free of error all the time and blame their failures on their own shortcomings. Boys on the other hand, commonly attribute failures to external factors. David Dunning, a Cornell psychologist offers the following example: In Cornell’s math Ph.D. program, when asked why they have lower grades in a particularly challenging course, girls are far more likely to respond with an answer like “You see, I knew I wasn’t good enough” while boys are more likely to say “Wow, this is a tough class.”

 Two, there are a lot of misconceptions about what engineering really is. Brendan Lees, a PLTW teacher, explains that “when surveyed, more females than males say they want to make a difference with their career choices.” This is clearly demonstrated by the overwhelming majority of girls enrolled in the Academy of Health Professions (medicine) and Early Childhood Development (teaching) career pathways. However, Lees adds, “for some reason, they don’t think this includes engineering.” Engineering is problem solving. At its most basic level, it is designing solutions that improve the world or humanity’s quality of life. Whether it is a biomedical engineer creating a new way to deliver a life saving drug using nanomaterials, a materials scientist and engineer creating an everything proof coating that repels just about every known liquid to keep surfaces clean, or civil engineers designing environmentally conscious buildings, engineers make a difference.

 After reading all of this, you may be wondering, why does it matter that girls are choosing these other careers? After all, we certainly need doctors, nurses, and teachers. According to Lees, “one reason there is such a big push to try to get more females interested in STEM and specifically engineering is that tech companies have realized that they are more productive and creative when they have close to a 50-50 ratio of men and women.” With so many problems to solve in today’s world, we need to maximize the productivity of design teams and ensure that our brightest minds, regardless of gender, are working to solve such problems. According to Glenn Gerhardt, an AP Physics teacher, “potentially excluding [any] brilliant minds from contributing to science and society is a huge missed opportunity.”

 So what can we do to get more girls into engineering? Well, companies and colleges are providing numerous opportunities for women to pursue degrees and careers in engineering. The number of scholarships and mentorships for females in engineering have grown exponentially in the last few years. While this is all fantastic, there is still more we can do to address this problem. Girls must be encouraged to take risks so they can learn to deal with failure. They need to be shown that it is okay for them to make mistakes. Also, instead of just saying “take engineering classes!” we should thoroughly explain what engineering is and how it improves the world.