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Thirty years after the first wave of women began pursuing engineering careers, it’s still mostly a man’s world – despite an earnest effort to encourage girls to pursue a profession with good opportunities.
Take Taya Upkes, who graduated summa cum laude in May with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
She had nine job offers before receiving her diploma and accepted an offer from Cummins to work at its plant in suburban Minneapolis.
Her starting salary? Somewhere in the “mid-60s.” And Cummins also is paying her graduate school tuition. She helps design generator sets for yachts, she said, and she’s the only woman working in a department of 15 or 20.
“I actually enjoy it,” she said. “It was intimidating at first, but I got used to it. It’s not in the back of my mind to think about it anymore.”
Engineering schools around the region report Upkes isn’t alone.
“The demand for engineers in general is high,” said Gary Mirka, an associate dean at Iowa State University. “Ninety-five percent of our students have jobs within six months, and recruiters are keen on women.”
Despite those opportunities, the enrollment at Iowa State reflects a nationwide pattern.
The share of women in its undergraduate engineering program peaked at 16.5 percent in 1995. This year, 15.2 percent of the engineering students are female.
Nationally, 17.9 percent of undergraduate engineering students were women in 2009, according the most recent data from the National Science Foundation. Ten years before, 19.8 percent of engineering students were female.
And even when a woman obtains a degree in engineering, it’s no guarantee she’ll enter or stay in the profession.
The foundation reported that 12.9 percent of the almost 1.6 million engineers in the nation were women in 2008, significantly lower than the graduation rate.
Betty Shanahan, the executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, said a study last year called “Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering” found one-third of female engineering graduates didn’t enter the profession because they thought the workplace culture was inflexible and not supportive of women.
The report also found nearly half of the female engineers who left the profession did so because of poor working conditions, too much travel and lack of advancement or low salary.
One-third said they didn’t like the workplace, their boss or the culture.
“When women leave a company, they leave the profession,” Shanahan said. “When men leave a company, it’s generally to go to another company.”
As for the continuing low number of women going to engineering school, Shanahan and others said one of the bigger reasons why capable girls didn’t choose the profession was their impression that engineers generally were loners working on abstract projects that didn’t directly help people.
Many choose health care fields instead.
“Girls don’t see the opportunities in engineering as opposed to other fields where you can see how you make a contribution,” Shanahan said. “The stereotype is you work alone and the social relevance isn’t understood. Girls don’t see the opportunities in engineering.”
The subtle messages sometimes conveyed by teachers and parents that engineering is a man’s world also helps continue that pattern, she added.
“It is a male-dominated field, and those implicit biases are often carried over,” Shanahan said.
Upkes, who graduated from high school in Sioux Falls, S.D., and attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City on a softball scholarship, remembers the reaction she often got when people learned about her degree.
“Every time someone said you were an engineer and people said, ‘OK, that’s weird,’ it got ingrained in my mind,” she said. In all her mechanical engineering classes, there was only one other female.
“Everybody noticed it, but after a while, when they knew you could do the work, people could accept it.”
Bette Grauer, an assistant dean at the Kansas State University engineering school, said about 15 percent of the undergraduates there are women. That low figure comes despite an active Society of Women Engineers chapter that offers after-school programs for middle school students and outreach efforts to high schools around the state.
“I can’t explain it,” she said. “I’ve been a high school science teacher and physics teacher. Fifty percent were girls and they do really well. I’m not sure why we don’t attract them.”