Study: half of women engineering majors don’t work in their field

by Angela Delmedico

A National Science Foundation study suggests approximately half of women who major in engineering subjects go to work in their fields, leaving University officials wondering why the discrepancy exists.

Nineteen percent of engineering students nationwide are women, but only 9 percent of the engineers in the workforce are female, according to the 2002 foundation report.

During spring semester, 18 percent of undergraduates and 20 percent of graduate students enrolled in the Institute of Technology were female, said Roberta Humphreys, an IT associate dean.

Nationally, the percentage of women in engineering programs at colleges and universities has remained stagnant over the past decade, according to the Society of Women Engineers.

“We need to ask why 7 to 9 percent are falling out,” said Sharon Kurtt, director of the technology institute’s Career Services.

April Taylor, a first-year computer science and engineering student, said her experience has taught her the realities of the field.

“Right now I work in the field, and it’s very dominated by men. Only the strong survive. If you don’t have that ‘go-getter’ attitude, they’ll just run all over you,” Taylor said.

Taylor has an associate’s degree in electrical engineering and now studies computer science at the University.

Among engineering departments, the University’s computer science department has one of the lowest percentages of females enrolled, said Maria Gini, professor of computer science.

Gini began a networking and support group – Women in Computer Science – in 1993 for female students in the department.

“Female engineers need to comprise at least 25 to 30 percent of the field to stay, otherwise isolation may ensue,” Gini said.

The reasons for this disparity might include a lack of mentors for female engineers and a “glass ceiling” women encounter in the field, according to a brief released by a National Society of Professional Engineers task force in June.

“A lot of progress has been made, but it’s an uphill battle,” Kurtt said. “Diversity is vital and we need to adapt the pool.”

National corporations such as Ecolab, Guidant and Cargill sponsor University student organizations.

“We live and do business in a diverse world,” said Sean Palacio, campus recruiting associate for St. Paul-based Guidant. “Ensuring that you have a diverse workplace is not only the right thing to do, it provides us with a competitive advantage.”

Mary Detloff, executive director of the Minnesota Society of Professional Engineers, said engineering is a male-dominated profession, but the number of females in increasing. She said she sees more female names on association rosters and hasn’t seen many people leaving the society – male or female.

The Society of Women Engineers focuses on familiarizing and recruiting girls in elementary and high school into engineering and promotes public awareness on issues related to women in engineering.