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How to Recruit More Women in Engineering and Technology

Woman in a hardhat representing women in engineering

Women in engineering have, unfortunately, always been a rarity. The same can be said of women in technology, specifically information technology, as well as other technical fields, including mathematics and science. In Canada alone, the amount of women in engineering programs has declined from 21% in 2001 to just 17% in 2009, with only 10% of licensed engineers being women.  Likewise, according to the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), in 2009, women only made up about 25% of those in information and communication technology studies. And this trend is not unique to Canada; engineering and technology suffer the similar deficits in the US and the UK. In fact, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), women make up only about 25% of those pursuing an education in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics – the so-called STEM segment.

Once upon a time, ridiculous stereotypes perpetuated the idea that women aren’t as capable in the technical fields as men. Of course, long since those stereotypes began, study after study has disproven them. So, if women can perform just as well as men in engineering and technology roles, the questions remain: Why aren’t there more women in engineering? Why aren’t there more women in technology? Some of the possible answers to these questions are disturbing, suggesting widespread sexual discrimination within the engineering and technology industries and/or that our society still clings to long-held, incorrect assumptions about half of the population. In fact, the absence of nearly half the potential workforce in what are arguably Canada’s most crucial sectors is not only a moral shame, but possibly also a looming economic one. Diversity, be it among the sexes, among cultures, or among age groups, allows for more creativity and innovation. Without diversity, teams, companies, and entire industries can easily become intellectually stagnant.

What a girl wants

The truth is that many schools and companies have launched fairly aggressive campaigns to lure females into the engineering and technology fields. Even Lego was recently lauded for introducing a female scientist figurine, which many hope will help nurture a love of science in little girls (along with a love of building things) and contribute to finally ending the idea that only boys go into technical fields.

However, try as they might, educators and employers are missing the mark. In fact, it’s believed that one of the major reasons the engineering and technology fields have such an image problem in the eyes of females is due to the very issue that they’re trying to resolve: the vast number of men compared to women. This drastic imbalance itself paradoxically undermines any efforts to correct because: 1) there are very few female role models to inspire women and convince them that they belong in the engineering and technology fields; and 2) it suggests systemic sexual discrimination even if, in reality, there isn’t any.

Another popular explanation for why engineering and technology fail to attract women is that both fields do a poor job of explaining just how their work improves people’s daily lives. While it may seem sexist (however complimentary) to suggest that women prefer more altruistic jobs than men, a 2010 study conducted by the University of Wisconsin did conclude that among children as young as five years old, boys showed a clear preference for higher-paid professions, including that of architect, lawyer, and chemist, while girls preferred more altruistic roles, such as nurse, teacher, and nanny. Whether these findings point to biological hardwiring or simply the influence of current socio-economic norms (norms that may be changing as women continue to thrive in the general workforce relative to men), educators and employers are not going to attract more women into the engineering and technology fields if they don’t adjust their messaging to focus more on how their work benefits individuals and society.

Even one of the IT sector’s greatest success stories (let alone female success stories), Marissa Mayer, Google’s first female engineer and current CEO of Yahoo, told The Huffington Post in 2011: “Women, to some extent more than men, really want to see the application of what they do in people’s everyday lives. For a lot of women, they didn’t see how computer science touches people.”

How women in engineering and technology got there

Not understanding what women want out of a technical career isn’t the only reason behind so many unsuccessful engineering and technology marketing efforts. Unfortunately, those campaigns also failed to exploit exactly how women tend to find their way into technical fields. According to ITAC, women end up in technical fields via more circuitous routes than men. Whereas men are more likely to directly pursue a technical career through studying engineering and technology in school, women who end up in technical careers practically stumble upon them because of overlaps with other, non-technical fields. Marissa Mayer herself originally wanted to be a pediatric neurosurgeon, didn’t buy her first computer until she was in university, and debated turning down Google in favour of a job with world-renowned consulting firm, McKinsey & Company.

What employers and educators can do

To recap:

  • The amount of women in engineering and the amount of women in technology is woefully low;
  • More women in the these fields would mean more creativity, more innovation, and possibly a more prosperous future for Canada;
  • Women tend to be drawn to careers in which they know their actions will have a positive impact on people;
  • Women who end up in technical careers tend to get there because of a technical field’s overlap with a non-technical field;
  • Employers and educators within the technical fields have not been able to appeal to women despite their efforts;
  • This inability appears to stem from:
    • The current lack of women in engineering and technology itself;
    • A failure to communicate the altruistic elements inherent in those fields;
    • A failure to communicate how technical roles involve the use of non-technical skills.

Obviously, these last three points form the basis for what educators and employers within engineering and technology need to do to recruit more women:

  • Shine the spotlight on more women

    Since the lack of women in engineering and technology is one of the barriers to recruiting more of them, educators and employers should focus their marketing efforts on highlighting those women who are already there. Feature them in publications and ask them to speak at schools and job fairs. Do what you can to bring them to the forefront. Only then will they become the role models that are so desperately needed to inspire young women to pursue technical careers, and only they can effectively shatter the myths about systemic sexual discrimination within the fields.

  • Talk about how engineering and technology make the world a better place

    Communicating how engineering and technology make people’s lives better should be a no-brainer; their impact is immeasurable. Many schools and companies focus on the money, job security, and status that engineers or tech experts enjoy. While these are all pluses, remember results of the University of Wisconsin study – such benefits are probably going to appeal more to males than to females. And while Marissa Mayer believes that as women become more familiar with technology, they will naturally be drawn into more technical fields, waiting for that to happen, if it ever does, equates to an immeasurable loss of potential.

  • Don’t ignore the non-technical aspects of technical roles

    According to ITAC, the term “information technology” does not encapsulate the wide range of skills that many IT roles actually require. The term “engineering” arguably suffers from the same connotative problem. Including non-technical skills, such as interpersonal, communication, and business skills, in job descriptions is not only more transparent for any job seeker, but it could also go a long way in attracting women to technical jobs, especially those who are not directly pursuing a technical career.

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