February 21 is Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day*, an initiative led by the DiscoverE organization that hopes to show young women how engineers are making the world a better place and encourage them to explore this exciting and rewarding career.
This cause is near and dear to my heart because I myself was one of those girls who thought that engineering was not for me. I was on a path to become a doctor – growing up in India that’s the path girls with an aptitude for STEM Education took. While doing my undergraduate studies in chemistry and pre-med, I was fortunate to enroll in a computer programming course one summer. My mom learned about the course and encouraged me to look into it. It changed the path of my career: I’d later embark on graduate studies in computer science at the University of Massachusetts, which started me on the road to my career as a software engineer at Intel.
Though that computer programming course was decades ago, the narrative on girls in engineering (and other STEM fields) has not changed much. For example, MIT News reports that only about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women, and as little as 13 percent of the engineering workforce is female.
Society as a whole needs to change if we are to close this gap. Parents, teachers, professionals, the government, corporations – everyone has a role to play in this growing movement. We need to address low enrollment and interest in engineering by girls and women. Research from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) indicates that girls lose interest in science after 4th grade. The research further suggests that building linguistic, spatial, and number skills from an early age strongly predicts interest in science and engineering in later development.
Accordingly, a promising solution to address the engineering gender gap is to make science and engineering fun for girls at the elementary school levels. GoldieBlox* is one of the first and most popular companies to address this by building interactive toys for girls at a very young age. Additionally, my go-to gift for young girls these days is the Barbie* Robotics Engineer doll, a collaboration by Mattel with Tynker, a game-based platform that teaches kids how to code and inspires them to explore STEM opportunities. It even comes with a free online course in coding. A doll like this helps girls understand that they do not have to give up other interests in order to pursue STEM study. (As a little girl I loved dolls; in fact, I still collect a doll from every new country that I visit.)
The need to encourage young women to pursue engineering is the reason I’ve volunteered to mentor or speak at many events that inspire girls to get interested in engineering and science. Intel also routinely sponsors many such events and forums, including:
Many companies, especially tech companies, have similar programs and are encouraging employees to role model.
We need to do a better job in becoming effective mentors. Girls may not pursue engineering because they don’t realize how much they’re capable of, while boys are told they can be CEOs and business leaders. Girls should be told the same, and be made aware of female engineers, especially ones in leadership positions. For several years, I brought my daughter and son to Bring Kids to Work Day at Intel. Both ended up selecting computer science and engineering as their major, and I think exposing them to engineers and technology early on had a role to play in that.
We also face challenges in the retention of women in engineering. According to a Society of Women Engineers study, only 30% of women who earn bachelor’s degrees in engineering are still working in engineering 20 years later, and 30% of women who have left the engineering profession cite organizational climate as the reason for leaving. At Intel, we are trying to address these issues by providing mentorships and cohorts designed specifically for women engineers. Over the years I’ve advised and coached many female engineers on issues ranging from how to be more assertive, to work/life balance. Corporations should take a hard look at the culture within their engineering teams and identify barriers that might get in the way of their female employees’ success.
Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day is just the start. There are many things you can do to encourage the next generation of women engineers:
We are moving in the right direction but we all still have a lot to do to encourage young women to see engineering as a potential career path. I encourage you to be a role model and a mentor and volunteer to inspire girls to join the exciting world of engineering.
As both a beneficiary and broadcaster of engineering education outreach, I invite you to sign up to support the next generation of women engineers and the world-changing innovations they will deliver.
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