Women have always been a part of engineering. Take Edith Clarke, the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree in 1918, overcoming both a learning disability and becoming an orphan at age 12. In 1921, she received her first patent for the Clarke Calculator; she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for this advancement in 2015. When Edith was hired by GE in 1923, she became the first—the only—woman professionally employed as an electrical engineer in the country.
Though Clarke would thankfully have much more company at GE today, nearly 100 years after her first patent, only 13% of engineers are women. Women of color are even rarer in the field; for example, in 2018, only 1.85% of engineers were Latinas. Between 2006 and 2014, the percentage of female freshmen in college who declared an intention to major in a STEM field more than doubled, increasing from 3.5% to 7.9%. While such progress is heartening, men continue to dominate the STEM work force; in 2017, women made up less than 20% of those employed in software development, applications and systems software, computer network design and aerospace engineering.
What can we do to breach that gap? We can empower and motivate girls to study STEM careers, combat stereotypes about gender and intellect, build girls’ confidence, talk about other successful women, teach the value of failure, and provide opportunities to succeed. We can also foster supportive and equitable working environments and examine family leave policies. 2/3 of women who enter engineering fields leave within 20 years; one third of those women cite organizational climate as the reason for their departure.
In 2020, a female engineer shouldn’t be a rare sight. Let’s continue the work of trailblazers like Edith Clarke by supporting women who wish to enter the field and inspiring young girls to pursue STEM throughout their education.
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