Because today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate the achievements of women in science and technology, I'm writing my second post this week on the dearth of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers. I have no problem with honoring Lovelace, a 17th-century woman credited with writing the first computer program, but if more women were following in Ada's footsteps, we probably wouldn't need to set aside a day to promote female participation in technology. The relative lack of women in tech is a subject near and dear to my heart since I'm a woman working on the tech periphery.
On Monday, I wrote about two recent reports issued by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology that offer some clues as to why women are underrepresented in tech. I found an article on the IEEE Web site, in which four women engineers share their thoughts, which offers some additional insight.
The women fault the common image of engineers as pocket protector-wearing nerds, a subject I wrote about in December, sharing results of a study in which University of Washington researcher Sapna Cheryan found geek stereotypes lowered women's opinions of tech careers. Said IEEE Fellow Karen Panetta, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass:
... What are electrical and mechanical engineers best known for by the general public? As stiffs with no personality and no social life. Who wants to pursue a career having that stigma?
IEEE Fellow Alice Parker, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, said she feels women aren't as attracted to engineering because "traditional approaches to the field lack immersion in its social benefits," and women are more interested in fields like medicine or education where they feel they can help others. Panetta seeemed to agree, noting chemical and biomedical engineering fields are "by far the most popular for women" because they appeal to women's altruism.
As for professional women shouldering more family responsibility than men, a topic I've written about several times, I thought Ramalatha Marimuthu had an especially interesting perspective. She's an IEEE senior member and head of the electronics and communication engineering department at the Anna University Karpaga Vinayaga College of Engineering and Technology in Chennai, India. Marimuthu believes it's somewhat less of an issue for women in other demanding professions, like medicine or law, because those fields tend to offer more flexibility like part-time work schedules. She said:
... Engineers won't find many openings for part-time jobs.
Outreach to young women would help pique more female interest in tech, the four engineers agree. Panetta has been running a program called Nerd Girls at Tufts since 1996. It's designed to "show[s] youngsters how normal, well-rounded young women like them can change the world through science and engineering, even if they're not the best at math and science," she said. Marimuthu started the Sangamam Project: Transferring Technology to Rural Areas, in which students from her school visit rural villages and teach girls and young women about engineering through presentations, contests and hands-on projects.
And IEEE Fellow Eve Riskin, a professor of electrical engineering and an associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Washington's College of Engineering in Seattle, created the University of Washington Women's Initiative. In that program, female engineering students make presentations to girls in middle and high schools, showing them how engineering is relevant to people's lives.
It's nice to see professional women honoring Ada Lovelace by working so hard to help expose young women to the career they love.