Where are all the women?

As a female executive in a company that employs 45,000 engineers -- two-thirds of its workforce -- I’m often asked, “Where are all the women in STEM?” While we’ve made strides to address this as a company, as an industry and as a nation, there’s admittedly much more work to be done. Women in leadership positions across technology sectors should feel a special responsibility to facilitate change, reduce isolation and foster advancement, confidence and success among women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). But, where can we start?

Engineering is a good place to start a national discussion about how to fill the STEM pipeline with talented women. Engineers gave birth to the Internet, space travel and GPS. Engineers are building our future and changing our world daily by solving critical problems related to our health, happiness and safety. But, within the growing field of engineering, there are special challenges for women.

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Natalie Angier wrote an article last fall for the New York Times titled “Mystery of the Missing Women in Science.” The problem she uncovered is not one of aptitude. Nationwide the grade point average in high school math and science for girls and boys is almost identical, with girls slightly in the lead. In a 2009 study of more than 21,000 ninth graders, both sexes expressed similar competence, confidence and feelings of engagement in math and science.

Women have the aptitude. What’s missing is the aspiration. Women make up fifty percent of the U.S. population and nearly sixty percent of undergraduate degrees, but only eighteen percent of engineering degrees go to women. Women make up half of the workforce, but only one-quarter of the scientific corps. Engineering is one of the largest professions in the U.S., but it is one of the most gender-imbalanced too, with eighty-nine percent men and only eleven percent women.

In order to change these numbers we need to make more progress in traditional engineering domains – electrical, mechanical, chemical, systems – but it is also critical for women to lay claim to the new engineering frontier as well. There are many opportunities for women to stake their claim and make significant contributions in disciplines like bio-mechanical engineering or (near and dear to my heart) cyber engineering and big data analytics.

However, aspiration remains elusive. A recent study released by Raytheon sheds some light on why millennials aren’t considering careers in cyber security. An overwhelming majority – 82 percent – indicated they never even heard of such opportunities from their high school teachers and guidance counselors. No wonder a disappointing 14 percent of young women cited any level of interest in a cyber career.

The interest may not be present but jobs are abundant. According to Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, for every person working in military cyber security today, we need 28 more – an astounding statistic! This domain represents an emerging discipline for engineers and one of the fastest growing technical employment opportunities.

So what’s the problem? Why aren’t we making more progress? Why aren’t we shifting that 89/11 male/female ratio? As the data shows, it’s complicated. In my more than 30 years of working with engineers, I’ve seen it play out time and again. Misperceptions about academic requirements, feelings of isolation, lack of mentors and role models -- and even a lack of sponsors -- all contribute to feelings of futility.

Fortunately, in my own career, I have found supporters and advocates along the way. I’m forever indebted to those who offered real help beyond the pep talk and who empowered me with self-confidence.

How many of us have provided that kind of support to others? If you have received that support before, my call to you is this: find a superstar and recognize in them what they may not yet see in themselves. Mentor them. Support them. Spread confidence and passion personally and commit to work for and create companies that share this passion for bringing more women into engineering.

Engagement, empowerment, confidence and advancement are values we must bring to the table to ensure women are better represented in the engineering world. As builders, thinkers, and creators – whether student, young engineer, seasoned professional or management – we must challenge ourselves to contribute to the solution. We each have a large role to play in changing the conversation about engineering. There will be a proliferation of new opportunities in the U.S. scientific and engineering workforce. We need an educational and talent pipeline to feed this growth. We are best served by diversity of perspective, approach and thinking.

Always remember that one person can make a difference in certain and uncertain times. Be that person!

Dugle is a Raytheon Company vice president and president of Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services.

 

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