Ask An Engineer #3: Why Aren’t There More Women in Engineering?

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Welcome to our new ‘Ask An Engineer’ series, where Dan Slaski addresses questions that have you losing sleep or staring off into space during important meetings. Have a question for Dan? Send it in.

Question: Why aren’t there more women in Engineering and what can be done to change that?

Dear the Future Is Female,

This is an important question with many complex social factors at play. I am a witness to this phenomenon but not an expert in a way that it would be appropriate to speak authoritatively on the why. The few female engineers I have had the opportunity to work with have been superb and more women designers of that caliber would benefit us all. I can speak on how Engineering is generally an excellent career and provide tips to demonstrate this, which hopefully encourages potential future women engineers. I call this my AAA system.

Aspirational

Careers that attract only on one superficial dimension lack deep fulfillment and sustainability. My work actually fuels me instead of depleting me because it is aligned with my values.”

The first step is to demonstrate that an engineering career path can lead to an aspirational lifestyle. Certain careers lure people in predominantly based on financial incentives or otherwise the perception of a glamourous lifestyle. Careers that attract only on one superficial dimension lack deep fulfillment and sustainability. My work actually fuels me instead of depleting me because it is aligned with my values. On top of that my job does provide me the luxury of affording awesome hi-tech toys, travel opportunities, and time to pursue hobbies like blog writing, improv, and triathlons.

As I get more established, I work fewer additional hours with more flexibility in great environments. An additional bonus is many of the career skills I have developed transfer well to designing a cool living space, creative side projects, and gear heavy hobbies. I know this is starting to sound braggy, but hey, I even drive a blue 2012 Chevrolet Cruze LT! Growing up in a complex, internet fueled world has made today’s youth highly attuned to authenticity. Engineering is an authentically aspirational career. Engineering isn’t ideal for every person, but it is for me and I’m confident it would be for a lot more people if they better understood the realities and the possibilities.

Achievable

It is well known in American culture that to become an engineer you must first go on a spirit quest. First, you must cross the vast ocean, Mathematicus, which is full of dangerous beast like the KraCalculous. Then you must summit the giant mountain, Scientifcus, to defeat the multi-headed dragon Chimestry. To talk about an engineering education is to talk about math and science. To be a writer one needs a solid comprehension of grammar. But being the best at grammar does not make the best writer. Similarly, math and science are fundamental to engineering at a core level, but much more is required.

To make an awesome design engineer requires many skills, both soft and hard. Such as creativity, problem solving, logic and communication skills, persistence, and thoroughness. These are a few of the additional skills that can elevate a person with the prerequisite math, science, and engineering fundamentals to the next level. Once upon a time, to be an engineer you needed to be an egghead that put people in space with slide rules.

We live in a new era with powerful tools to aid design, and, to be honest, they can help do some of the heavy lifting for us. I can tell you from personal experience that if you excel in the majority of the already mentioned skills that make an excellent engineer and have the desire and work ethic, you can push through and compensate for any shortcomings to become an amazing designer.

Awesome

  • Aerial racing drones
  • Weaponized gladiator robots
  • Electric skateboards
  • Self-driving cars
  • Open source fabrication
  • Metal additive manufacturing
  • Evacuated tube maglev train

More than ever there are awesome shows, blogs, and Internet videos shining a spotlight on these awesome creations. What’s behind the awesome?

Behind the Awesome

  • Automobiles
  • Widgets
  • Engines
  • Structures
  • Objects
  • Machinery
  • Equipment
We need to end our tendency to work quietly behind the scenes, perpetuating stereotypes, and instead exemplify the creative and forward-thinking nature of our work through our behaviors, actions, and lifestyle.”

Boy, are awesome creators having an awesome time with awesome tools. We need to move past the stereotype of the pencil pushing, white short sleeved shirt with a black tie, Dilbertesque clone with evidence that there is another breed of engineer. We need to end our tendency to work quietly behind the scenes, perpetuating stereotypes, and instead exemplify the creative and forward-thinking nature of our work through our behaviors, actions, and lifestyle.

Unfortunately, too often I hear, “You are an engineer?” Seemingly indicating a surprise at my ability to make eye contact or crack a joke. I want to hear, “You are an engineer!” Indicating sheer excitement about new technology or projects I am engrossed in.

BatteBots is awesome. What is not to like about fire spewing, weapon wielding robots exploding in twisted metal carnage? In Season 2 of BattleBots we got to know Zoe Stephenson, captain of team Chomp.  I thought Chomp seemed overly complicated and doomed for early annihilation.  As is often the case, I was totally wrong, and Chomp did awesomely well and even made it to the finals. Zoe consistently conducted herself with a cool and composed confidence, backed up by ro-butt kicking performance.

Many of the other teams’ members and captains displayed a false confidence and a know-it-all smarter than thou pretense that is actually transparent and unfortunately all too common amongst engineers. Chomp is awesome, Zoe is awesome. Engineers may never be rock stars or all-stars but we can be north stars in the eyes of bright young people. So, get on board the Awesome train. Next stop, Awesome town.

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