According to data from Built by Me, an organization that encourages women to pursue engineering careers, significant gender disparity still exists in the STEM workforce. Women hold only about 28% of STEM jobs.
While such statistics may be dismaying, the silver lining is that more and more organizations like Built by Me exist, and they’re correcting gender disparities in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields one individual at a time. Certainly, girls and women have a number of compelling reasons why they might lean into engineering roles: diverse career opportunities, chances to unite technical expertise with creative problem-solving, and potentially high salary ranges. More than anything else, engineering appeals because it allows women the chance to do interesting and impactful work.
Women in Engineering Scholarships
Scholarships make engineering programs more accessible and potentially help more women earn engineering degrees. By closing the education gap, these scholarships also help narrow the gender disparity in the STEM workforce.
Many great engineering scholarships for women are available, including these four examples:
Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Scholarship Program
According to the Society of Women Engineers website, their scholarships “support those who identify as a female/woman and are pursuing an ABET-accredited bachelor or graduate student program in preparation for careers in engineering, engineering technology, and computer science in the United States.”
An active program, SWE awarded 260 scholarships in 2019, including both new and renewed scholarships. In total, these scholarships were valued at more than $810,000.
SWE has more than six decades of experience promoting the value of women in the engineering field. It remains one of the preeminent organizations advocating for the success of women in the STEM fields.
National Society of Black Engineers
The National Society of Black Engineers is committed to a vision of true parity within the engineering field, one in which Black engineers have every opportunity to earn degrees, achieve professional success, and become leaders in their field. A big part of this mission is encouraging Black students, male and female, to pursue engineering programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
In pursuit of this vision, the National Society of Black Engineers offers a long list of scholarship opportunities available to Black men and women only. Different scholarships come with different stipulations, most of them based on academic performance, but all are intended to open doors for minority students who are passionate about pursuing a STEM career.
Amelia Earhart Fellowship Program
Named for the famously fearless, groundbreaking pilot, the Amelia Earhart Fellowship Program seeks the advancement of women in the aerospace field. Its website notes that only about 25% of the global aerospace workforce comprises women.
Each year, a $10,000 fellowship is awarded to up to 35 women who seek doctoral-level degrees in fields related to aerospace engineering.
The program has been around since 1938, and in that time it has awarded more than 1,600 fellowships. These fellowships are valued at more than $10.6 million and have been awarded to women in 70-plus countries.
American Society of Mechanical Engineers
One final engineering scholarship for women worth knowing about is from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. This scholarship is awarded to students who wish to pursue an academic path in mechanical engineering, mechanical engineering technology, or a related field. Prioritization is given to students who exhibit leadership in humanitarian causes or have a higher level of financial need.
Though not specifically focused on women, this scholarship has helped provide opportunities to many women who have shown an interest in STEM career paths.
Various scholarship levels are offered, ranging from $5,000 to $13,000.
Percentage and Statistics of Women in Engineering
In considering the gender disparity that exists within STEM professions, consulting some actual numbers, such as the percentage of women in engineering, may be helpful.
Women in Engineering Statistics
Data from SWE shows that while more women are pursuing engineering degrees than in the past, the gender disparity hasn’t narrowed.
Consider that in 2007, 18.1% of male college freshmen intended to pursue degrees in a STEM field. Among female freshmen, the rate was just 3.7%. In 2017, the percentage among men rose to almost 28%, while the percentage of women hovered at 9.5%. The same data shows that about 32% of women switch out of their engineering program before graduation. Only about 30% of women who earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering are still working in engineering 20 years later.
While these women in engineering statistics may seem discouraging, some silver linings can be found. The number of women awarded with engineering or computer science degrees, for example, has increased by 58% since 2012.
Today, the top five engineering degrees for women are:
- Mechanical engineering
- Chemical engineering
- Computer science
- Biomedical engineering
- Civil engineering
Challenges Facing Women in Engineering
Statistics show not just that women are underrepresented in college engineering programs but that they face many obstacles in the workforce as well. For example, according to SWE data, only about 13% of engineers and 26% of computer scientists are women. Also note that a significant pay gap exists: Women engineers earn an average of 10% less than their male counterparts.
But perhaps the most sobering statistic is that 30% of women engineers who leave their profession cite a toxic or unjust work climate. This illustrates a simple reality: For women, the engineering work environment continues to include far too many hurdles and roadblocks.
Women in engineering face some specific challenges, with pay inequality topping the list. Additionally, opportunities for professional advancement disproportionately favor men. More broadly, women in engineering still lack visibility, which may be demoralizing to those who are considering entering the field.
A Look at Famous Women Engineers
The gender disparity in the engineering world is alarming, but don’t let it obscure the fact that many women have found success in STEM fields. They have made a significant impact on their profession and the world in general. In this section, we’ll celebrate the examples of six famous women engineers.
Born in 1883, American Edith Clarke broke barriers in more ways than one. Not only was she the first woman in the U.S. to be professionally employed as an electrical engineer, she was also the first woman in the country to serve as a professor of electrical engineering. A specialist in the subject of electrical power systems, Clarke wrote papers and books that were highly influential among the engineers of her day. Additionally, she is remembered for her gentle yet passionate advocacy for more women to advance in the engineering profession.
The Austrian American actress and producer Hedy Lamarr is perhaps best remembered for her film work, including roles in such classics as Algiers and Samson and Delilah. However, she is also noteworthy as an inventor, specifically as one of the co-creators of the frequency-hopping spread spectrum. The American military adopted this technology, which essentially allowed for encrypted radio transmissions. Lamarr was completely self-taught and remained a lifelong electronics enthusiast.
Born in 1909 in Great Britain, Beatrice Shilling is remembered for her innovative work in the field of aerospace engineering. Specifically, she developed a safety device that prevented fuel from discharging into the carburetors of British military jets, an innovation that’s credited with saving the lives of many fighters. Today she is revered as a pioneer in electrical and aerospace engineering.
Gwynne Shotwell currently serves as the president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, a space transportation company based in the U.S. Her career includes work in both automotive and aerospace engineering and subject-matter expertise in thermal analysis. Her writings on spacecraft engineering brought her to the attention of inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk, with whom she collaborated to launch SpaceX. Shotwell is not only considered one of the most influential American businesswomen, she’s also an example of how famous women engineers can be at the cutting edge of technological innovation.
Alicia Boler Davis
As a high school student, Alicia Boler Davis enrolled in a program at the General Motors Institute. She was drawn to the STEM field and decided she wanted to remain at GM as an employee. Following the completion of her college degree, Davis began working at GM in 1994, initially as a manufacturing engineer. She rose through the ranks and became the first Black woman to serve as a plant manager. In 2012, she became the company’s vice president of customer experience. She is currently an executive at Amazon and is known for her role in mentoring women seeking careers in the world of STEM.
The Indian-born Priya Balasubramaniam currently serves as an executive at Apple, an achievement she earned following an illustrious career in engineering. She has experience in both mechanical engineering and software development and has been at Apple since 2001. She speaks openly about the struggles she had finding career opportunities in the engineering world and is a passionate advocate for women in STEM.
Inspiring Quotes from Women in Engineering
One way to consider the challenges facing women in engineering, as well as the potential rewards, is to study the words of famous women in engineering and other STEM fields.
Here are a few quotes from women in engineering and other STEM fields, including Zaha Hadid, Danica McKellar, Fabiola Gianotti, Mae Jemison, and Barbara McClintock.
Zaha Hadid was widely recognized as one of the most innovative architects in the world, up until her death in 2016. Here’s a quotation from Hadid:
I used to not like being called a “woman architect.” I’m an architect, not just a woman architect. The guys used to tap me on the head and say, “you’re OK for a girl.” But I see an incredible amount of need from other women for reassurance that it can be done, so I don’t mind anymore.
In this quote, Hadid affirms the frustrations that women can face in the engineering world but also asserts the value in powerful female examples and mentors.
Danica McKellar rose to fame as an actress on the hit television show “The Wonder Years,” but since then she has found renown as a prominent mathematician. Here’s a noteworthy quote of hers:
If you’re beautiful, you’re led to believe that you can’t also be smart. But you can be fun and fit and social and be really smart. And the smarter you are, the more capable you’ll be to handle whatever challenges come up in life.
In this brief but powerful quote, McKellar encourages women not to settle for stereotypes or to limit their vision of personal and professional achievement.
Here’s another powerful quote, this one from Higgs boson physicist Fabiola Gianotti:
This job is a great scientific adventure. But it’s also a great human adventure. Mankind has made giant steps forward. However, what we know is really very, very little compared to what we still have to know.
Her point is simple: For all the knowledge that men and women have acquired, so much mystery remains, and so much room for further study, exploration, discovery, and invention.
Mae Jemison carries the honor of being the first Black woman astronaut to go to space; she is also accomplished in the fields of biology and chemistry. Here is an illustrative quote of hers:
Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world; it’s your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.
Coming from someone of Jemison’s stature, this is a powerful exhortation for young girls and women to follow their passions.
This quote comes from Barbara McClintock, a scientist whose work won her a Nobel Prize in 1983. She says:
If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off … no matter what they say.
This is another powerful exhortation from a woman of immense accomplishment in a STEM field.
Tips for Advancing in the Engineering Field
For women seeking professional advancement in engineering or a related field, the following tips may be useful for overcoming obstacles.
Have a Support System in Place
First, having a network of people who will offer you support and encouragement as needed and who will be your sounding board during seasons of frustration is critical. Your support system could be family members, close friends, or other women you meet in your engineering trajectory. Some online groups can offer the companionship and solidarity required to keep your spirits high as well.
Find a Mentor
Knowing another woman who is further into her engineering career is also recommended. Actively seek a mentor who can coach you, provide advice about your different career opportunities, and listen as you share obstacles that you face.
It’s crucial for women in engineering to have interpersonal communication strategies in place; specifically, be sure you’re actively seeking feedback from mentors, peers, employers, and professors. This can be one of the best ways to sharpen your technical skills and identify areas for improvement in your workplace competencies.
Resist Imposter Syndrome
Most people sometimes feel like they don’t belong in their professional field or that they’re ill-equipped for the role they have been given. Imposter syndrome is especially common among women, if only because not many prominent examples of women thriving in the engineering field exist. Be mindful to fight against these feelings and remind yourself of the career preparations that have led you forward.
Maintain a mindset of continuous education and ongoing improvement. Never stop learning, never stop reading, and never stop exploring. This is the attitude that will help keep your skills sharp and your mind engaged.
Important Voices for the Future
Despite obstacles and disparities, women have played a vital role in shaping our world through their contributions to the engineering field. Much opportunity remains for women looking to thrive in STEM professions. Indeed, the future promises many chances for engineering professionals to apply their expertise to the design of new wearables, mobile devices, infrastructure, health care innovations, and beyond. As technology continues to permeate our daily lives, engineering professionals continue to play a central role. A good place to begin for women interested in this challenging and exciting career is by learning more about scholarships and learning opportunities, including advanced degree opportunities.