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New IEEE-USA Audiobook Explores Understanding the Engineering Gender Gap

By Paul Lief Rosengren

IEEE-USA has published a new audiobook: Free to Choose STEM: Data and Reflections on Girls and STEM Careers. In it, author Pamela Cosman draws on her personal experience as a female engineer, as well as numerous studies and articles, to examine why a gap remains between the number of women and men entering engineering. It raises a number of questions about how we raise our children and influence their decisions to enter (or avoid) STEM careers. This new audiobook is well worth the listen.

Cosman highlights trends she finds shocking, and delves into reasons why these trends might exist. She notes that in the 1970s, there was a fundamental shift, with the percentage of women entering such fields as law and medicine quickly increasing, until it leveled off at around 50 percent (or above). By contrast, female participation in engineering has not moved above 20 percent. (Cosman points out the exceptions — bioengineering and environmental engineering, where female participation is at 40 percent.)

Even more puzzling is the field of Computer Science, where the number of women choosing this profession rose to 37 percent in the 1980s, but then dropped to roughly half that percentage by 2015. She discusses several possible reasons, including the popular media portrayal in movies and TV of computer scientists being almost exclusively male and geeky.

Cosman looks across the globe to see if 20 percent of female participation in engineering is universal, and she concluded it is not. “My unthinking assumption was that there would be more women in STEM in more affluent countries, and also in ones with more legal and social equality between men and women. But that intuition was flat wrong.” She discovered that in 2015, in more than 20 countries, women outnumbered men in the engineering fields — notably with only one a relatively affluent westernized country (Italy).

A difference based on socioeconomic factors exists in the United States as well, with studies showing girls in poorer areas outperform boys in math; while in more affluent areas, the boys do better. Cosman indicates that one of the reasons for this gap is “because of the problem that believing in difference can produce difference.” She sites several studies, and personal experience, to back up that when girls are told they are not as good in math and science, they do less well in courses and on tests.

Engineering is often presented as a technical and unemotional profession — boys fixing and building things. Cosman makes a passionate case that one way to close the gap is to present engineering as a helping profession. In career aptitude tests, girls are more likely to answer that they want to work in a field where they help people. As a consequence, they are directed to areas like nursing or social work. Cosman points out that “the people who [will] make major advances in ending world hunger, developing clean energy sources, solving climate change problems, providing clean drinking water around the globe, and developing a second home for humanity on another planet are going to be STEM practitioners.” She feels it is time for the profession, and the individuals in it, to focus more on how engineering is helping individuals improve lives.

Cosman outlines many reasons we should encourage more of our daughters to go into engineering, including that those employed as engineers have exceptionally high levels of career satisfaction, as well as steady and high-paying opportunities .

IEEE-USA’s new Free to Choose STEM: Data and Reflections on Girls and STEM Careers audiobook is available free at IEEE-USA’s online shop.

Pamela C. Cosman is a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Co-Director of the Center for Research on Gender in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine (CRG-STEM), at the University of California-San Diego. She has a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the California Institute of Technology, and a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. Cosman is an IEEE Fellow, and she previously served as Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE Journal on Selected Areas in Communications. She has received several awards for helping to promote diversity in the field of engineering, including the UC-San Diego Affirmative Action and Diversity Award, the Athena Pinnacle Award, and the National Diversity Award of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association.

Paul Lief Rosengren

Paul is the coauthor of In the Time of Covid: One Hospital's Struggles and Triumphs. He worked for more than three decades in corporate communications at NBC, PSE&G, BD and in state government. He has a Master’s in Public Policy from The Kennedy School of Government, Harvard; and an undergraduate degree in political science from Dickinson College.

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