In the Black Hills of South Dakota there’s a highway interchange made of wood that might stand as a test for engineers. It might also tell us something about the way we educate girls in this country, and thus something about the puzzle of women in engineering.
Called the Keystone Wye, the interchange stacks up three layers: a paved road on the ground level, a straight bridge through the middle, and a high bridge arching over the top. The whole construction blends into the surrounding trees; passing tourists might not even notice it. But to someone with an engineering interest, the mind and eye of an engineer, the Keystone Wye is cool. The bridges are made of lumber, after all. The heavy highway traffic is supported by nothing more than wooden beams, trusses, and arches. When it was built in 1968, the wooden construction was chosen so that the interchange would fit with its forested Black Hills setting. But the bridges were also made of wood because those 1960s designers wanted to build something special: something that differed from the ordinary concrete and steel-beam bridges that make up the nation’s highway overpasses.
Three arches support the Keystone Wye’s upper bridge. Formed from laminated wood, each arch has two pieces, sixty-six feet long and curved to roughly 90 degrees of arc, with a steel hinge in the middle to absorb shock. The footings took 650 cubic yards of concrete and half a million pounds of steel, while the wooden arches began as stacks of two-inch-thick planks, scarfed to length before being curved and glued together.1
Certainly, there are numerous engineering feats that fascinate ordinary people who rarely think about construction projects. Take for instance the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland, a pair of giant Ss that rotate to lift canal boats. Or the Millau Viaduct, a delicate-looking cable-stayed bridge that crosses eight hundred feet above a valley in southern France. Or the Bailong Elevator in China, a glass elevator running up a thousand-foot cliff. The more modest Keystone Wye, in contrast, requires something more to pique interest: an engineering mindset in the observer.
That unassuming highway interchange in the Black Hills can provide more than infrastructure. It can also serve as a test to identify people who have the natural ability and early education to see the world as an engineer sees it: not exactly as an artist and not exactly as a scientist, but as something in between—someone whose first impulse is to fix a problem in the most elegant, compelling way possible. And with something like the Keystone Wye test in hand, we can begin to work our way through the situation of women in engineering.
There is a puzzling situation for women in engineering. In 2018 (according to the most recent full report by the American Society for Engineering Education), women received 21.9% of new bachelor’s degrees in engineering from US institutions. The graduate school numbers are slightly higher, with women earning 26.7% of master’s degrees and 23.6% of doctorates.2 Engineering ranks even worse than physics as the STEM field with the lowest participation rate for women.3
These figures are improvements over the 18% of undergraduate engineering degrees granted to women in 2006, and the 20% in 2016. Back in 2011, science education researchers Kacey Beddoes and Maura Borrego noted “Despite a thirty-year history of initiatives and interventions, . . . women remain a minority in engineering,” with “enrollments of female engineering students” declining.4 But the situation has improved somewhat since those observations. Women now make up 16% of the engineering workforce in America, compared to 12% in 1990.
“Our problem is not so much in the discipline of engineering itself or how we teach engineering in college. It starts much earlier, with the way we introduce engineering to the very young.”
Those numbers still remain far under women’s 50.8% of the American population5 and the more than 56% of college students who are women.6 Yet somehow, the numbers prove worse than the American Society for Engineering Education’s initial statistics might suggest. Generally speaking, women tend toward the disciplines with clear social purposes. Environmental engineering, with 50.6% women, is arguably one of the most important disciplines, as are biomedical (45.4%) and industrial engineering (32.3%). But some of the engineering specialties (and often the ones with the most promising career opportunities) show much lower numbers for women: petroleum engineering, for example, at 16.9% women. Fields like mechanical engineering (14.8%) electrical engineering (14.2%) show similarly abysmal figures. Aerospace (14.6%) and computer engineering (13.3%) are equally low.
Participation rates are not the only troubling statistics for women in engineering. Women tend to leave the field at higher rates, too, although the actual numbers are challenging to interpret. As Anne E. Preston pointed out in 2004, engineers in general—men and women alike—quit their profession four times more often than doctors and over three times more often than lawyers.7 A 2008 study discovered that over 40% of all engineering undergraduates change to other majors.8 Still, a Google query for why women leave engineering produces over 250 million results, and the Harvard Business Review’s 2018 “The Subtle Stressors Making Women Want to Leave Engineering” is only one of dozens of articles with similar titles.9
In 2011, the Department of Energy issued a ten-chapter report titled “Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering.”10 Women, the report concluded, “are the most underrepresented in the engineering disciplines.” And around 40% of the women engineers the report surveyed “have left the field of engineering.” One-third of those who left responded that they did so because of workplace climate or culture, while a quarter left to spend time with their families. Among those who did not enter the field after graduation, a third reported a perception of engineering as inflexible and not supportive of women.
The problem with “Stemming the Tide” is that it lacks equally exact numbers for men who leave the field, which is needed to draw useful conclusions about women in engineering. This problem runs through the literature. In 2015, MIT issued a study called “Persistence Is Cultural,” which used diary entries from forty students over four years to describe the pressures and indignities young women felt.11 Although the MIT study is often cited as evidence of women’s departure from engineering, it directs most of its attention to self-reporting from new graduates who immediately leave or do not enter the profession. The lack of contrasting statistics for men makes it difficult to form an accurate, more complete picture of engineering as a whole.
The 2007 “Retention Study” by the Society of Women Engineers remains a more useful source.12 According to that study, the gender gap is small in some instances. Men and women with engineering educations had equal unemployment rates (just 1%), for example. Other statistics, however, showed larger gaps. Fewer women at the time were going into the profession straight out of school, with 60% of women and around 70% of men reporting that “they were employed as engineers within the first three years of finishing college.” For those eighteen to twenty years out of college, “only about one-third of women but about half of men were still in engineering jobs.” Overall, 48% of women stayed in the profession their whole careers, as opposed to 58% of men. The study also found that 22% of women with engineering degrees were “not in the labor force or employed outside engineering,” but only 10% of men could say the same.
The anecdotal evidence is even more convincing, pointing to low-level but persistent discrimination against women. It’s worth mentioning that oppression has not always been so low-level, even in the recent past. Any account of discrimination faced by women in engineering has to mention the massacre of fourteen female students in Montreal, which became a defining feature of an entire culture.13
Late on the rainy gray afternoon of December 6, 1989, a disturbed twenty-five-year-old Canadian man walked into the École Polytechnique with a rifle and a hunting knife. He opened fire, killing six of the women engineering students he targeted, then walked through the building, killing eight more women and injuring ten women and four men before shooting himself.14
Nothing of this magnitude has occurred in the thirty years since, which has tempted some to argue that a madman’s actions on a single occasion have been taken as the defining feature of an entire culture. To accept this line, however, would be to miss something important: the women who report ongoing discrimination in engineering now are not pointing back to the 1989 Montreal massacres as the model for what they encounter. They know they are not being killed, not suffering to the extent that women engineers have in the past. Nonetheless, they testify to something real in women’s experience.
“I’ve always felt discriminated [against] because I was a female at an engineering school,” Mindy Ravnaas, one of my classmates at the School of Mines, told me recently. On several group design projects, she found it assumed that “since I was a female, I wasn’t intelligent enough to have an idea.” Mindy stormed out of a computer-coding class her freshman year after the male professor made her “feel degraded” for asking basic questions. “I ended up dropping out of this class in the middle of lab because I felt alone and stupid with no way to figure it out. I felt completely defeated.” The professor “ruined my interest for computer science, and I felt like I wouldn’t be able to become an engineer, which was my dream.”
Mindy’s description is echoed by many in engineering. A Google engineer told Gizmodo reporter Melanie Ehrenkranz that she gets fewer questions at code reviews when she contributes under a genderless or masculine ghost name.15 In “The 5 Biases Pushing Women Out of STEM,” a 2015 study in the Harvard Business Review, Joan C. Williams reported that two-thirds of the professional women she surveyed felt they had “to prove themselves over and over” because they were women.16 A 2016 study by undergraduates found that women’s contributions to open-source coding sites are accepted more often than men’s, but only when their gender is not identified.17
It’s true that some women feel that these stories of oppression do not reflect their own experiences in engineering. A British chemical engineer calling herself “Po the Person” took to YouTube to echo concerns that the tales of woe she reads don’t ring true for her: “Maybe my parents are just much more egalitarian than I give them credit for, but nobody in my life tried to discourage me from studying engineering.” Every relative and teacher, “even the ones who are not progressive,” offered nothing but support in her pursuit of an engineering degree.18 When I asked Kayla Gagen, my classmate at School of Mines, how it feels to be a woman in engineering courses, she offered similar sentiments, replying laconically: “I usually don’t notice.”
In July 2017, a Google engineer named James Damore generated weeks of controversy when he posted a memo claiming that while discrimination does exist, not all of it can be ascribed to oppression. Most commentators rebuked Damore, but economics columnist Megan McArdle took a contrarian line based on her experience at a tech job early in her career. “I liked the work,” McArdle wrote. “But I was never going to like it enough to blow a weekend doing more of it for free. Which meant that I was never going to be as good at that job as the guys around me.”19
Nonetheless, the fact remains that a majority of women in STEM fields report having experienced put-downs and harassments. Asked for examples, Caitlin Lardner, another of my engineering classmates, insisted that she had “nothing super serious or really worthy of writing about.” She had spent her summer internship in an engineering-design department of “primarily young women.” And yet, Caitlin also almost casually mentioned that “the one time I wore a dress in North Dakota, the superintendent of the subcontractor on our job site (who was staying in the same hotel) asked me what corner I was working that night.”
Mindy Ravnaas added that during her early undergraduate years at the School of Mines, “I didn’t give my input very often” when in groups with male classmates. Now, “going into my senior year of college, I’ve learned . . . to keep speaking up and be somewhat persistent.” She has realized that “we as women have to work harder to be heard, but if we give up we will never change the industry. Thankfully I have been surrounded by many other women with the same mindset, and together we will slowly improve this discriminating culture.”
Among the diary entries quoted in the “Persistence Is Cultural” study, several show women undergraduates experiencing a loss of confidence during their college years. A student named Ashley wrote: “The biggest problem I seem to be having [is] self-doubt. I would look at a problem, and think of a way to solve it, but then I would second-guess myself, and convince myself that my way of answering the question must be wrong. . . . I don’t understand why I keep doubting myself so much. . . . Lack of confidence has never ever been a problem for me, even when I was a little girl.”20
“The one time I wore a dress in North Dakota, the superintendent of the subcontractor on our job site asked me what corner I was working that night.”
This sense of continuing mistreatment is supported by studies that collect self-reporting. According to a large-scale 2018 Pew survey, for example, 50% of women in STEM report having experienced discrimination. Of the women who work mostly with men, 48% said their gender has made it harder for them to succeed, while only 14% of women who are not surrounded by male colleagues reported anything similar. “The most common forms of gender discrimination,” the Pew study concludes, “include earning less than a man doing the same job (29%), having someone treat them as if they were not competent (29%), experiencing repeated, small slights in their workplace (20%), and receiving less support from senior leaders than a man who was doing the same job (18%).”21
In the 2018 Harvard Business Review article on women leaving engineering, M. Teresa Cardador and Brianna Barker Caza note that even apparent promotion can reinforce a sense of gender discrimination. Often with a good will, engineering firms move women upward into managerial roles. “If you have ten engineers in a room, from our company,” explained one male executive, “they’re all going to be smart, but it’s the one who can communicate well, the one that can get people behind them . . . they’re stereotypically female.” The result is that women have been promoted to engineering managers in recent years, but Cardador and Caza go on to suggest that managers are not actually much respected among engineers. “When women disproportionately occupy roles that are less valued or unwanted,” they conclude, “it can reinforce stereotypes about female engineers being less technically skilled, make them feel less respected, and create the illusion that they are not a ‘real engineer.’”22
Among the many students I have met, there are some young women who possess, or are possessed by, the engineering mind. They spend their free time reading about new techniques for extracting 0.001 percent more gold from ore blends. They send me texts about the “dope” engineering that creates the harmonics of a grand piano. They get excited explaining the internal gear systems of the Falkirk Wheel. They love driving past the Keystone Wye.
Generally speaking, these are also the young women who don’t seem to notice low-level sexism. The discrimination has to be major to intrude on their thoughts. In their not-quite-science, not-quite-art fascination with the physical world, they spend their time seeking the most efficient and elegant method to solve engineering problems.
I am engineer enough to recognize that I am not an engineer in the way these women are—failing to work, for instance, on a captivating design for an ultralight airplane in my spare time, just for the fun of it. Maybe I should be doing such things, but I think of the work I want to do in terms of how engineering can alter and advance society and how it can change the world. I believe I have at least a little of the engineering mind, but I am still concerned about the social problems of American professions, and the condition of women in engineering fascinates me.
Still, the literature on women in engineering tends to ignore or even diminish those whose primary interest is engineering itself. Kayla Gagen, for example, who emailed me about how cool it is to see the engineering “drone on the fly” to complete the Millau Viaduct in France. Or my friend Mariya Sachek, who recently urged me to study the 1980s construction techniques used to build the Lotus Temple in Delhi. How do these women fit into the picture of women in STEM? Something here needs to be protected: a simple love for the physical world and how it works, among women who care most of all about engineering and do not focus much on social politics.
The greatest puzzle in all of this may be that, over recent decades, American colleges and businesses have undertaken a major campaign to increase the number of women in engineering. Yet, percentages in the United States remain at a level that even the most optimistic among us would describe as miserably low.
Our failure to develop a more inclusive workforce in engineering stands in contrast to many non-Western countries, where percentages recently surpassed those of more developed nations, despite starting with a much worse situation for women. In 2019, the World Bank reported that thirteen of the fifteen countries with the lowest rates of women in the workforce are in the Arab world,23 and yet, according to a 2018 UNESCO report, eleven out of eighteen Arab states have women as the majority of their new STEM graduates, raising the participation of women to nearly 37% of working researchers.24 “Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are the only countries where women test better and feel more comfortable in mathematics than men,” notes Saadia Zahidi in her 2018 book, Fifty Million Rising. According to the Economist, women make up 35% of internet entrepreneurs in the Arab world, compared to 10% worldwide.25 “If the narrative of American expansion was ‘Go West, young man,’” Zahidi writes, “the new narrative for up-and-coming women in the Arab World may well be ‘Go Digital, young woman.’”
Meanwhile, Finland, Norway, and Sweden—the Scandinavian countries with the three highest measures of opportunities for women—have among the lowest rates of women STEM graduates in the world, according to a 2018 study in Psychological Science.26 “The issue doesn’t appear to be girls’ aptitude for STEM professions,” Olga Khazan noted in the Atlantic. “In looking at test scores across sixty-seven countries and regions,” the authors of the study “found that girls performed about as well or better than boys did on science.”27 It seems odd to have Algeria and Tunisia lead the world in percentages of women in STEM fields while Scandinavia lags behind. The result may derive in part from the fact that technical fields provide one of the few ways for women to advance in male-dominated countries. But the Psychological Science report matches several older studies that show economically developed cultures can actually end up with larger gender imbalances in some fields, given the greater number of opportunities available to women.
These statistics are unstable, conflicting, and divergent. The United States has tried to cover varying possibilities, attempting both to increase opportunities for women in general and to raise the number of women in STEM fields in particular. The cultural and financial investment has been enormous.
“If the narrative of American expansion was Go West, young man,” Zahidi writes, “the new narrative for up-and-coming women in the Arab World may well be Go Digital, young woman.”
In its 2019 college rankings, U.S. News & World Report named what it judged the nation’s 206 best engineering schools.28 Every single one of those 206 schools has a program exclusively for women in engineering, encouraging them to enroll, helping them graduate, and supporting them in their future careers. Take the Colorado School of Mines (43rd on the U.S. News & World Report list). In February 2019, it hosted a “Girls Lead the Way” conference to encourage high-school students to come to the university and choose STEM majors. The motto was “Boldly Go Where No Woman Has Gone Before.”29 Duke University (tied for 18th) names as a priority in its Academic Strategic Plan the need to “aggressively recruit and support women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields.”30 And down toward the bottom of the list, the University of North Texas (ranked 205th) announced in February 2019 that it had received a $30,000 grant from the Texas Women’s Foundation for increasing the number of women in engineering and science.31
The field-wide assistance for women often continues into their careers. Take Cargill, an agricultural-engineering conglomerate and the largest privately held company in the United States, with revenues of $115 billion. In 2014, Cargill began collaborating with CARE in the Ivory Coast and Ghana to help poor cocoa-growing communities with a project called “Empowering Women,”32 and in 2015, it became a “Gold Sponsor” of an organization called “Million Women Mentors,” which praised the company for being “truly committed to developing female STEM talent.”33 In 2017, Cargill was a founding signatory of the Paradigm for Parity pledge to achieve gender equality in management by 2030.
Similarly, General Electric, which built the power plants producing a third of the world’s electricity,34 supports a networking organization for its women employees, and in 2017 “set a goal of having 20,000 women fill STEM roles throughout the company by 2020.”35 Caterpillar, which manufactures construction machinery and ranks 264th on Fortune magazine’s list of the world’s largest companies,36 promotes WIN, its “supportive network” to help women “act as catalysts for global and local change.”37 One of its senior figures, Stacey DelVecchio, was president of the Society of Women Engineers, and in 2018 the company released a promotional video bragging that “Women in engineering at Caterpillar develop cutting-edge technologies, lead product groups, and make a difference in the world.”38
The projects for women at computer-tech firms are even more ambitious, perhaps in part because of such complaints as Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, a 2018 book in which Emily Chang writes, “the environment in the tech industry has become toxic,” with women “systematically excluded from the greatest wealth creation in the history of the world and denied a voice in the rapid remolding of our global culture.”39 Loretta Lee, an ex-Google engineer suing her former employer for discrimination, adds, “The reason there are so few women in tech is because it sucks to be a woman in tech.”40
Despite these complaints, executives at Intel sponsor “Diversity at Intel,” having pledged to reach gender parity among its engineers by 2020.41 Microsoft has its “Global Diversity and Inclusion” program, promoting what it claims are “over twenty years of committed diversity and inclusion efforts.”42 IBM offers a “career re-entry program” for women two or more years out of work in technology.43 Apple hosts a similar program,44 and the company “is committed to helping more women assume leadership roles across the tech sector,” claims CEO Tim Cook.45
Extensive programs also exist for girls before college. Begun by the National Academy of Engineering, “The Engineer Girl” website names around forty national college scholarships only for girls.46 “Scholarships for Women” lists many more.47 Meanwhile, in 2017, the Society of Women Engineers praised twenty-five of the nation’s best girls-only programs for K-12 students.48 Partnering with the Girl Scouts, AT&T sponsors “Imagine Your STEM Future,” which brings women scientists and engineers to school classrooms, acting as STEM mentors for girls. The National Science Foundation’s “Imagine Engineering” lets “girls from low-income and underserved communities” visit science labs. Motorola and Google are among the sponsors of girls’ “FIRST Robotics” teams, while Dell offers “Journey and Connect Through Technology,” helping girls explore robotics and other fields. The Girl Scouts who earn science and engineering badges are asked to pledge to help “add 2.5 million girls to the STEM pipeline by 2025.”49
Who can deny that this huge cultural investment of money and time has had disappointing outcomes? We seem to have arrived at the point of harshly diminishing returns: every new dollar spent, every new appointment of a recruiter for women, yields smaller and smaller returns. Women made up just one percent of engineers in 1960,50 a figure which rose fairly quickly over the next decades. But in the years since, that growth has flattened.
This lack of women, despite all our efforts, has led some thinkers to conclude that we need to change the whole discipline of engineering, especially the way we teach it. If gender parity cannot be achieved by pouring money into recruitment and reforming college culture, they argue, then there must be something sexist about the idea of engineering itself.
Back in 2001, the historian of science Pamela E. Mack could observe that “promoters of women in engineering” have generally “steered away from the broader feminist critique.”51 In the years since, however, theorists have turned much of their attention to that feminist critique. Prominent among them is Donna Riley, who heads the School of Engineering Education at Purdue, a college program with the mission to “radically rethink the boundaries of engineering and the purpose of engineering education.”52
In 2017, Riley published “Rigor/Us,” a much-discussed essay that demands the complete reformation of engineering, taking aim at the idea of rigorous engineering education.53 Rigor, she writes, “has a historical lineage of being about hardness, stiffness, and erectness; its sexual connotations—and links to masculinity in particular—are undeniable.” As a result, the idea of rigor in engineering “accomplishes dirty deeds.” It primarily serves the purposes of “disciplining,” “demarcating boundaries,” and “demonstrating white male heterosexual privilege.”
And thus, she argues, rigorous math and science must be eliminated from engineering. Against those who want merely to open existing engineering education to greater numbers of women, Riley insists that “this is not about reinventing rigor for everyone, it is about doing away with the concept altogether so we can welcome other ways of knowing. Other ways of being.” We need to move “from rigor to vigor,” replacing engineering colleges with “a community for inclusive and holistic engineering education.”
“If we eliminate rigor from the education of engineers, we cannot expect rigor in what those engineers go on to do.”
Others have traced out somewhat similar lines, responding to the unsatisfactory percentages of women in STEM fields by rejecting current ideas about science, math, and technology. “It is not unusual,” Kacey Beddoes and Maura Borrego write, for people unaware of recent feminist literature to join issues of “feminism in science” with issues of “women in science.” This older approach produced the increase-the-numbers “Women in Engineering” initiatives adopted by so many colleges and businesses. But, as Beddoes and Borrego note, such initiatives are often criticized by more recent feminists, who reject a focus “on attracting women to (and retaining them in) the current masculine culture.” Women in Engineering initiatives prove “problematic if they do not address the biases and limitations of that culture.”54
Math professor Bonnie Jean Shulman writes that “quantification, comparison, and measurement are in themselves cultural activities, whose assumed values are not universally shared.”55 In a 2013 essay, Linda Bergmann argues that we must cease to cater to the kind of engineering education that college men prefer “based on formulaic instructions, hierarchical classroom structures, and right/wrong answers.” The “feminist approaches to learning—which rely heavily on collaboration, the dissolution of hierarchies, and the encouragement of personal learning—defy both the institutional traditions of engineering schools and the personal inclinations of the students who dominate them.”56
The problem with such critiques is that rigorous math and science are integral to the discipline. Engineering failures are how bridges fall down and planes tumble from the sky. Whatever the merits of arguments against objectivity, we have an objective measure by which to judge an engineering project: Does it work? If we eliminate rigor from the education of engineers, we cannot expect rigor in what those engineers go on to do.
When I asked her about the 1970s at the School of Mines, Joan Howard, a 1976 graduate, told me tales of the overwhelmingly “men’s world” that engineering used to be. Although much has changed in the four decades since, engineering programs remain a world of men in many ways. Any woman who has experienced an American engineering education can attest that further changes that need to be made.
Expand the curriculum to require engineering ethics? Certainly. Include in that coursework a section on feminist ethics? Absolutely. As a feminist, I would welcome such changes. In fact, the balanced approach the philosopher Caroline Whitbeck uses in her 1998 Ethics in Engineering Practice and Research could serve as a model for teaching ethical theory. Asking engineers to think of ethical problems as subject to the same kind of multiple constraints that engineering-design problems have. She titles an important chapter in her textbook “Ethics as Design: Doing Justice to Ethical Problems.”57 But along the way, as we implement such changes, we cannot allow math and material science to be stripped of the rigor needed to seek meaningful techniques, the compelling methods, for solving engineering problems.
Maybe the best way to increase the number of women in engineering is to drive your fifth-grade niece up to see the Keystone Wye, explaining the features that make the overpass so cool. Or, perhaps, to demonstrate to a seventh-grader the harmonics of a grand piano. To walk her through the workings of the Falkirk Wheel. The problems solved in building the Millau Viaduct. The construction of the Lotus Temple.
Our problem is not so much in the discipline of engineering itself or how we teach engineering in college. It starts much earlier, with the way we introduce engineering to the very young. In 2008, the National Academy of Engineering concluded, “Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in the United States to improve the public understanding of engineering.” And yet, “despite these efforts, educational research shows that K–12 teachers and students generally have a poor understanding of what engineers do.” The result is “a strong sense that engineering is not ‘for everyone,’ and perhaps especially not for girls.”58
The absence of long-term, longitudinal studies, following girls from elementary school to adulthood, makes definitive judgment impossible. But the available evidence points toward the necessity to promote engineering early in girls’ lives. A 2018 Pew study found that Americans with postgraduate STEM degrees complained most of all about pre-college schooling, with a majority thinking their own K–12 education was below average,59 failing to inspire them with the love for science that they only developed later.
Such initiatives can be surprisingly simple. “Even a single-day event” about engineering “can be effective,” noted a 2014 study of short-term presentations to middle-school girls and their parents. “Reshaping attitudes,” “exposing young minds to the world of engineering,” and forming “a vision” of how young people might become engineers.60 Similarly, in 2008 researchers tested high-achieving girls who attended presentations about engineering. A follow-up two years later found eighty percent (of the girls available for response) still considering engineering as a career.61 And a 2009 report showed an increase in middle-school girls’ interest in engineering after only a “twenty-minute narrative” about “the lives of female engineers and the benefits of engineering careers.”
The “inclusion of female role models at all levels (high school, college, and professional),” the report concluded, has genuine impact on middle-school girls’ ability to imagine “becoming an engineer.”62 Based on this suggestive evidence, the American Association of University Women concluded, “Exposure to women in science and engineering fields can provide a major impact on middle and high school girls’ perceptions.”63
The question, however, is what perceptions we are giving them. “I don’t want the number of female engineers to go up because it’s seen as a feminist choice to enter a field in which we are so poorly represented,” explained the biomechanics professor Michelle Oyen in 2013. “I want the number of female engineers to go up because more girls hear about engineering when they’re young and realize what a great career it would be for them.”64
There are limits, in other words, to telling girls they should enter engineering because it will make them representatives of women’s advancement. Down that path lies the strong potential for later disappointment in their careers. A feeling for women’s cultural progress is a good thing for a woman engineer to have, but the first and most important reason for entering the field is a love for the strange not-quite-science, not-quite-art fascination with the physical world that is engineering.
And the answer to the puzzle of women in engineering requires awakening that fascination in girls. The Keystone Wye in the Black Hills is not just a test to discover which students have the engineering mind and eye. It is also a test for those who hope to inspire them. Can we explain what makes an engineering problem interesting to solve? Can we teach what makes it cool? ◘
20. McArdle column
21. 2018 Pew Study
35. GE’s STEM women
40. Loretta Lee
41. Intel report
42. Microsoft report
43. IBM report
59. 2018 Pew study