Professional Preface logo This story appears in The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society's student newsletter Professional Preface, vol. 5, no. 1, p. 1, 4.


Women in the engineering field have grown accustomed to being in the minority; even at schools with the highest numbers of women enrolled in their engineering programs, the percentage of women students rarely extends over 30 percent. As women leave school and head into their chosen fields, it is the norm to be vastly outnumbered, and the imbalance increases as women move up within their place of employment.

"The ranks of women engineers have grown from less than two percent of all engineers in the United States in 1978 to nine percent of engineers today"
A recent National Research Council study, Women Scientists and Engineers Employed in Industry: Why So Few?, explored the reasons why women comprise only 12.3 percent of the industry workforce. According to the study, working conditions for women in industry are perceived as being less favorable, thus resulting in fewer women in the field.

The key contributor to the hostile work environment that many women engineers face was identified as isolation. To break this barrier, networks and other support systems have been developed throughout the United States. In colleges, businesses, and corporations, women gather in formal and informal groups to network, share ideas, and assist in one another's professional development. Joined first by common career goals or work environments, the women soon find that support networks can enrich their lives in other ways as well.

The Pipeline Problem
Julie Sheridan-Eng, an engineer at Lucent Technologies and chair of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Committee on Women in Engineering, suggests that the real problem is not to attract, but to retain those women who have entered the pipeline. "This means adequate mentoring once women have joined a workplace, face-to-face and electronic networking to reduce feelings of isolation, attentiveness to workplace issues, and no tolerance for non-professional workplace behavior," she says.

In particular, she feels that networks can help women because it is a place where women can gather together with colleagues in an environment where information and experiences can be shared. Two examples of programs to assist those women currently working in the pipeline are Women in Leadership at Lucent (WILL) and the Technical and Professional Women's Conference (TPWC).

WILL was established to give women a voice in the diversity strategy council at Lucent Technologies in Morristown, New Jersey. Lisa Sallstrom, technical manager of software release management, was a founder of Women at AT&T (WATT) in 1993. After Lucent separated from AT&T in 1996, the Lucent members of the group became WILL. Its 4,000 active members are organized into a national chapter headed by Sallstrom, with local chapters set-up across the country.

Established in the mid-1980s, the TPWC at Hewlett-Packard had its genesis at a Society of Women Engineers meeting. The conference takes place every two years at the convention center in San Jose, California, and features keynote speakers and discussion groups addressing strategies for technical success. Recent conferences have attracted more than 2,700 women.

The benefits of these networking programs are paying off. Today the ranks of women engineers have grown from less than two percent of all engineers in the United States in 1978 to nine percent of engineers today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Even more encouraging, women currently make up 19 percent of engineering undergraduate students, where new iniatives and programs are encouraging women to pursue engineering studies.

College Programs: Then and Now
As the women's movement inspired women to break longstanding gender barriers in engineering in the 1970s, initiatives like Purdue's Women in Engineering Program (WIEP) emerged on college campuses. A freshman seminar is one component of WIEP's threefold mission: to recruit and retain women engineering students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds and to develop a base of support among alumni and employers. Programs like WIEP focus on mentoring; re-entry for returning students; science and engineering residence halls; financial aid; and advisement, counseling, workshops, and peer support. But until now, no curricular program on women, science, and technology has existed for students.

The Women, Science, and Technology (WST) curricular program at Georgia Institute of Technology is a minor available for students (women or men) in science, engineering, social science, and humanities who are interested in the social and cultural processes of science and engineering. Students in the WST program learn about issues such as the history of women in science and engineering, the cultural and organizational influences affecting the participation and performance of women in science and engineering, and the gendered impact of science and technology policy.

"These issues are pertinent to what women need to know about the engineering workplace and how they should prepare for it," says Mary Frank Fox, professor of sociology and co-coordinator of the WST program. Dr. Fox studies the connections between gender, science, and technology; in particular, she has researched the features of the organizational environments in which women and men are educated and work.

"Organizational setting is especially important in science and engineering because they rely upon facilities, funds, apparatus, and teamwork," she says. "Participation and performance are tied to these social and organizational resources."

One of the factors of an organizational environment that is especially important to women is evaluative practices. Dr. Fox's research indicates that, unlike men, women fare better when evaluation practices are more objective and standardized.

"I would then urge women entering the engineering workplace to opt to work in settings where the criteria for promotion are relatively clear and specified and be attentive to this factor," she says.

Another area with good outcomes for women, Fox adds, is collaborative arrangements. "Women entering the workplace should be attentive to placement of junior employees in ongoing projects and opportunities and/or a lack of them to collaborate and participate effectively in research teams," she said.

In an effort to assist women undergraduates, several colleges and universities have developed programs to promote research experiences and mentors to foster their consideration of engineering careers. Dr. Sheridan-Eng was unsure whether to pursue engineering as a course of study after she met two studentsone who had built an oscilloscope with his father and another who had helped fabricate a transistor at his father's job.

"For someone with no out-of-classroom experience, hearing about experiences like this was intimidating," she confessed. Dr. Sheridan-Eng felt that this barrier could be surmounted with some practical experience. During her undergraduate education, she spent her summers at companies like AT&T Bell Labs and Hewlett-Packard and national laboratories like Fermi and Lawrence Livermore.

"The best part about these jobs is that they help the student determine what interests them and what they have an aptitude for," she said. In fact, it was the summer job at AT&T Bell Labs that convinced her to pursue a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, a field that she had not even considered.

Dr. Sheridan-Eng also feels that the development of "hands-on" skills (by working with equipment and learning more about analysis and real-life problem solving) instills the student with more confidence. Thanks to her summer experiences, she was not intimidated by the oscilloscope or transistor anymore.

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