Engineering field still low in women

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ATLANTA - Georgia Tech freshman Val Uyemura caught a glimpse of her future even before she started classes in electrical engineering.

Val Uyemura (left), 18, talks to her mentor Jin Joo Lee, 20, about a final exam she took that afternoon at Georgia Tech, where they are engineering majors. There are 87 women in the program.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Val Uyemura (left), 18, talks to her mentor Jin Joo Lee, 20, about a final exam she took that afternoon at Georgia Tech, where they are engineering majors. There are 87 women in the program.

"When I went to orientation, they split us up by major, and I was the only woman," said Ms. Uyemura, 18, who is from the Atlanta suburb of Smyrna.

The startling reality of the gender imbalance in engineering wasn't enough to scare her away. Still, Ms. Uyemura - whose parents have engineering degrees - admits that being one of just 87 women enrolled in an 855-student major can be intimidating.

"Women need a more personal relationship," she said, referring to the way females learn.

The perception that engineering lacks a personal touch is one of the main reasons, experts say, that more women aren't engineers. Nationally, women make up only about one-fifth of students in engineering programs, virtually the same share as a decade ago.

"One of the reasons has to do with the negative stereotype in engineering - the nerd drinking Cokes and eating Twinkies until 3 in the morning," said William Wulf, the president of the National Academy of Engineering. "The really important attribute of an engineer is creativity. Somehow that's not what high school girls are hearing about."

A 2003 STUDY by the University of Michigan's Institute for Research on Women and Gender found that females choose other careers because they don't see engineering as a way to help others. The study, conducted over 17 years, followed Michigan students from sixth grade through college and beyond.

Women are vital to helping the United States remain competitive in science and engineering, Mr. Wulf said. The U.S. lags behind countries such as China and India in producing engineers and scientists out of college each year, and women and minorities are key to improving that standing, he said.

No one can figure out why programs designed to encourage female engineers aren't working. Georgia Tech offers annual engineering camps for middle- and high school girls, and its students and alumni regularly visit schools to talk to science and math classes. A mentoring program also connects female engineering majors in their third and fourth years with freshmen who want to major in engineering.

Still, female enrollment hasn't changed much at the Atlanta university in the past decade.

MAHERA PHILOBOS, the director of Georgia Tech's Women in Engineering program and a civil and environmental engineering professor, said she has had success getting women to enroll in some areas of engineering, such as biomedical and industrial.

Though frustrated by the stagnant enrollment, Ms. Philobos knows change happens slowly. She said the key is reaching the girls when they're in middle and high school to encourage them to take rigorous math and science courses.

Compare Georgia Tech to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., where the same types of programs have yielded 36 percent female enrollment in undergraduate engineering.

Smith College in Northampton, Mass., an all-female institution, launched an engineering program in 1999 to help produce more female engineers to work in the industry and teach engineering.

That does not translate into a national trend. Women received 18 percent of the 78,200 engineering degrees given out in 2003-04, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Department of Education. That's the same percentage as in 1998 and only slightly more than the 16 percent in 1996.


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