Related: Women Unplug From the Tech Industry
One look at the percentage of women graduating with undergraduate engineering degrees shows that men still get most of them, and, in fact, their share has been growing.
The number of male engineering graduates rose by 11% from 2004 to 2009, while the number of female engineering graduates actually fell by 5.2% over the same period, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2009, the percentage of undergraduate degrees from engineering schools that went to women hit 17.8%, a 15-year low, according to the American Society of Engineering Education.
All this suggests that, without more women in the education pipeline, efforts to increase women's participation at technology companies won't become any easier. "It's a broad societal challenge to get more women interested in science and engineering," said Susan Larson, assistant dean and director of the women in engineering program at University of Illinois in Urbana.
"When you get the type of peer pressure that smart girls have to be ugly, it plays a huge role," said Karen Panetta, editor-in-chief of Women in Engineering magazine. "That public perception has absolutely killed the enrollments."
The decline is all the more striking because women do just as well or better when it comes to grades. At Stanford University, where 27% of engineering graduates were women last year, the top 5% of the class broke down about 50/50 in terms of gender, said Brad Osgood, senior associate dean for student affairs at the School of Engineering.
The story is similar at the University of California, Berkeley, where last year 21% of engineering grads were women. But "if you look at the student leaders in the college of engineering and the students getting major academic awards, you would swear [the enrollees] are 50% women," said Fiona Doyle, a professor of mineral engineering.
Of course, the percentage of women in engineering programs varies by field and school. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has the highest ratio of female to male engineering graduates, with about 42% in the class of 2010. Of the 1,200 students who completed the engineering program at the University of Illinois in Urbana, however, just 15% were women.
Meanwhile, women are more attracted to engineering disciplines such as biomedical and environmental engineering than computer science. While 44% of environmental science majors and 37% of biomedicine majors were women in 2009, just 10.5% of computer-science graduates from engineering schools were women, according to the ASEE.
"Women are drawn to fields where the social relevance is high," said C. Dian Matt, executive director of the group, Women in Engineering ProActive Network.
To change the perception of less popular branches of engineering and make them relevant to women, schools are overhauling their outreach and programs. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, Christine Valle, director of the Women in Engineering Program, is piloting software that uses real-world examples to teach the principles covered in a core required statics class in the hopes of making the technical material more appealing to female students.
Students now use simulations of the collapsed Minneapolis Bridge and a levee in New Orleans to study bridge forces and water pressure. "We've revamped the curriculum to show how what they are studying has a very clear connection to improving people's lives," Valle said.
At MIT, the Women's Technology Program that started in 2002 brings rising high-school senior girls to campus for a four-week immersion program to encourage young women to pursue engineering. "You have to get them at K through 12," said Associate Provost Barbara Lisko. "We've lost a lot of them before they ever get here."
The Corporate Conundrum
Beyond creating a gender balance in the classroom, the discrepancy in female students poses a real concern for technology and engineering companies looking to fill their pipelines, said Panetta.
"Women are large consumers," she said. "If you want to appeal to them, you need to understand what their needs and requirements are." Having women design the products many of them consume is one surefire way to make certain a female perspective goes into their design, she said.
It's not just that companies see a real value in the points of view that women engineers bring, said Panetta, it's that there are some important distinctions in what those points of view are. When she works with high-school students to design solar-powered cars, for example, Panetta finds that while her male students typically design for speed, her female students design for safety and reliability. That kind of difference in vision starts to matter when you think along the lines of your consumer, she said.
"When you think about a minivan, most of those drivers are women; they are mothers," said Panetta. "Companies recognize that without the women's perspective, they are only getting half the picture."
Even after they've gotten their degree in engineering, getting more women to join the ranks of men in high-tech companies is often still a challenge, said Suja Ramnath, vice president and general manager of M/A-COM Technology Solutions, a producer of radio frequency, microwave and millimeter wave technology, based in Lowell, Mass.
When a woman comes to the company for an interview and sees an office full of male employees, convincing her that the company is female-friendly becomes a hard sell. "They look around and see a full roster of male counterparts," said Ramnath, who herself is the only female executive at her company.
Though the cult-like world of gaming is often closely associated with computer science, there's a chance that social-media technology like Facebook, which offer clearer opportunities for social impact, might have the effect of attracting more women to the field.
"As new kinds of jobs in computer science become more prominent like Facebook -- it's a different kind of enterprise," said Berkeley's Osgood. "It will be interesting to see if social networks provide a different kind of appeal."
Related: Women Unplug From the Tech Industry
Write to Jane Porter