Through understanding the relationship between engineering and society we can begin to recognize the need for the engineering population demographic to mirror that of the society it serves. In the past, the intellectual capital that women possess within the United States has not been effectively utilized within the engineering enterprise. But how would a demographic shift in engineering influence the engineered solutions and public policy of the future? And what amount of shift are we talking about? Answers to the first question vary but many share grounding in generalizations that I often hear as a woman engineer, most notably concerning our collaborative and reflective natures, strong teamwork abilities, multi-tasking expertise, and heightened social conscientiousness. As for how large of a demographic shift is required, women need to achieve a critical mass within engineering populations, requiring a doubling of current engineering representation to around 30%. To accomplish this goal, gender diversity efforts need to broaden and become more effective in order to increase knowledge of and enthusiasm for engineering among the target population.
For example, five years ago RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering created the Kate Gleason Endowed Chair position which allowed a faculty member to focus on gender diversity issues within engineering. As a result, a successful women-in-engineering organization called WE@RIT was formed which builds community among women engineering students while providing pre-engineering outreach programs to middle and high school female students. Last year the programs offered through WE@RIT reached over 1,500 K-12 students and educators while engaging 175 volunteers. The majority of the volunteers were women engineering students who are uniquely well-suited to communicate their enthusiasm regarding engineering and its strong societal relevance to a younger audience of women and girls. Pre-engineering outreach programs begin for girls as young as 4th grade with a two-week summer camp experience, and follow-on programming targets females in each year level through 12th grade. The college has subsequently experienced a steady increase in the number of first-year women engineering students over the same time interval.
Doubling the representation of women engineers within our country is a complex problem which requires a multi-faceted, long-range strategy. However, individuals can make a difference by encouraging girls and young women to learn more about how engineering impacts society. If there is an interest, encourage participation in a pre-engineering outreach program like those offered by WE@RIT (http://www.rit.edu/~women/) and many other colleges of engineering throughout the country.