A lie that must die: Engineering is guy stuff
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The good news is that the percentage of female engineers has doubled in the past 20 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That sounds like progress until you look at the numbers: From 1983 to 2003, the percentage of women in engineering rose from a minuscule
6 percent to a still significantly disproportionate 12 percent.
Although we're moving in the right direction, the engineering profession is far behind others when it comes to the mix of men and women. Today 25 percent of all medical doctors in this country and 29 percent of all U.S. lawyers are women. So why aren't there more women in engineering?
A subtle but pervasive gender bias continues to discourage women from considering an engineering career. Women can be excellent engineers, just as they can be excellent doctors and lawyers. But some decades-old misconceptions about what women are good at still seem to exist in society.
Worse, the misconceptions seem to be perpetuated by the people with the most influence on a young woman's career path: family, friends, peers and even some school counselors.
There certainly isn't a genetic reason why more women shouldn't develop a passion for science and mathematics early on. And with 80 percent of all new-car purchase decisions influenced by women, it's not a lack of interest - or need - that keeps women from pursuing engineering degrees.
Doesn't it make sense that if women are influencing most car-buying decisions, their input also would be bene-ficial in vehicle design and development? I'm confident that having more female engineers in the workplace would help car companies develop better products and achieve new engineering milestones more rapidly.
My nearly 20 years in the industry, including the past five with Consumer Reports, suggest that men and women view cars differently. Sure, I love great styling and that fun factor in a vehicle. In fact, I own a classic 1967 Ford Mustang convertible for just those reasons.
But I've found that women are more likely to buy a vehicle that suits their everyday needs, rather than the most stylish one on the dealer's lot.
Unfortunately, women who are eager to enter the auto industry are often encouraged to pursue one of the perceived "softer" disciplines, such as marketing, human resources or public relations. I almost chose a more traditional career path. Though I was always good at science and math, I didn't even consider an engineering major in college until a guidance counselor suggested it to me.
You also don't have to be surrounded by gearheads as a youth to desire a degree in engineering. There were no gearheads in my family.
I wonder, too, whether girls and young women are still getting the wrong signals in school. One high school teacher said to me: "You'll never be an engineer. You talk too much, and you think about clothes too much."
He seemed uncomfortable with the idea that a woman would make a good engineer. Whatever the reason, he made me second-guess my decision, if only for a moment.
Some steps to take
What will it take to attract more women to automotive engineering?
It's time to eliminate some of the stereotypes about the profession. It's also time for parents, teachers and others to realize and then tell young people that the engineering profession can be exciting, challenging and creative for both men and women.
Employers also should look for ways to be more flexible for male and female employees who have to juggle a career and family demands.
The auto industry deserves the best available engineering brainpower it can muster. By not doing all that we can to reach out to women, it's as if our industry is running at half-throttle.
Given the daunting technological challenges ahead, parents, teachers, guidance professionals and employers should make efforts not only to encourage but to seek out this high-potential, renewable resource.