By: Laura Cullen, E.I.T , PES Structural Engineers
Like many CRE professions, women in engineering fields, particularly in civil engineering, are a minority. Why is that? Why is it that when we account for 50% of the world’s population, only 17.5% of the world’s civil engineers are female? Perhaps the answer can be found in women leaving the workforce to have children, or maybe societal pressures for girls to steer towards certain fields of study, while others are only for boys.
But how best to address this disparity? I believe that there are three distinct ways to contribute to the inclusion of women and girls in civil engineering and, frankly, all engineering fields.
- Encourage girls to participate in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) courses and initiatives at the earliest possible age.
The most effective way we can encourage girls to pursue careers in STEM fields is to create opportunities where they can see truly how exciting these fields can be. Through initiatives in schools and with professional organizations, such as the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), girls can build bridges, robots and whatever it is that their minds can envision. It is of paramount importance to allow girls to realize that interest in these fields is completely acceptable, and that they can succeed in a STEM field just as their male counterparts do.
My hope is that we are past the days of steering girls toward English and home economics courses, and preparing them for careers only as nurses or teachers. The ultimate goal of STEM outreach in the elementary, middle and high schools is to make all students aware of all their options regarding a career path, and embracing this type of outreach is especially important for girls.
- Support women who are pursuing engineering degrees at the college level.
While significant progress has been made in this area, there is still much work to do. For example, my alma mater, Georgia Tech, is the number one producer of female engineering graduates in the country. In 2015, Georgia Tech enrollment of female engineering students in any engineering major was 32%, an increase of 10% since 2009. Georgia Tech also has higher-than-average female enrollment, with the national average of females enrolled in engineering programs at 17% in 2015. These numbers do look great and I believe that, in particular, Georgia Tech’s initiatives, such as Women in Engineering (wie.gatech.edu), do an exceptional job of helping to retain female engineering students. By combining recruitment and retention efforts at the elementary, middle, high school, and college levels, those percentages of women pursuing engineering degrees will only continue to climb.
- It is never too late to pursue your passion.
This one doesn’t just apply to STEM fields or engineering fields or, frankly, any field. This simply applies to anyone who is in search of their passion, regardless of age. I speak of this from personal experience. I fully believe I was one of those girls who steered towards liberal arts, and away from STEM subjects at an early age. It was in my late 20s, while having already begun my career, that I was introduced to civil engineering, and I was hooked from that point forward. Today I can say that I am a structural engineer, because I decided to follow my passion. Regardless of where you are in life, regardless of where you eventually want to wind up, it is never too late to pursue whatever your dream may be.
Indeed, there have been significant strides toward changing perceptions of women and girls in engineering. Inclusion of STEM programs at the elementary, middle, and high school levels certainly increase awareness of potential career paths, while support programs at engineering colleges and universities help propel women forward in their chosen careers. It is only when women and girls can see this path as fully acceptable, that yes, you can do this too, will we be able to have true gender representation in any engineering field.
Laura Cullen is a Project Engineer at PES Structural Engineers. In this role, she works with clients on a range of projects, including mixed-use and multi-family structures. She received a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Berry College in Rome, GA, and bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgia Tech in Civil Engineering. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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