Women engineers: pay gaps, what interests girls, focus on altruism

MiMi Aung and team
Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Project Manager MiMi Aung led a team that successfully demonstrated aerial flight recently on the Red Planet, She got her electrical engineering master's degree from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) recently presented its annual media briefing on engineering trends, highlighting insights on social science research from 2020 and future study aspects that could level the playing field for gender equality in STEM fields.

SWE panelists provided insights on multiple topics, including why there is still an underrepresentation of women in engineering fields, pay gaps between male and female engineers, and why girls entering college often choose chem and bio over ee and mechanical engineering.

The briefing featured a trio of speakers with various backgrounds, including Anne Perusek (Director of Editorial and Publications at SWE), Peter Meiksins (Ph.D. Cleveland State University), and Roberta Rincon (Ph.D., Associate Director of Research at SWE). SWE was formally founded in 1950, but its origins can be traced back to the 1940s, as women found new opportunities in engineering when men were heading off to WWII.

SWE is a not-for-profit education and service organization for women in the STEM fields and is an advocate and catalyst for change for women in engineering and technology. "Empower women to achieve full potential in careers as engineers and leaders, expand the image of the engineering and technology professions as a positive force in improving the quality of life, and demonstrate the value of diversity and inclusion," states the organization's mission statement. It's also open to any gender and background and promotes and supports diversity within the STEM fields.

The Society of Women Engineers also publishes an annual literature review for the State of Women in Engineering, detailing accomplishments, breakthroughs, and setbacks through articles submitted by its members and academic papers. This provides an overview, analysis, insight, and recommendations to the current state of women in the engineering and STEM disciplines from the previous year and what the future might bring.

2019 infographic from SWE on women engineers in the workforce and their percentages compared to their male counterparts. (Society of Women Engineers)

On the topic of pathways to becoming an engineer, girls are less inclined to major in engineering when going into college. Over the last decade, interest in majoring in engineering and sciences has grown, but women's interest in pursuing a degree has lagged behind men's. According to Professor Peter Meiksins, one reason women are slow at gaining engineering degrees is that they seem to express a lower level of math confidence than men. While women excel at math and science, the confidence to take those courses appears to be lacking. Parental and peer encouragement are also significant factors noted, as some girls look to go where their parents or friends have gone in terms of academics and what they've majored in.

The research also states that some academic institutions present their curriculum interests differently between girls and boys. Think of it as the military looking for recruits or corporations catering to new talent; the presented information is advertised differently to gain those interests. Women also tend to have more altruistic motivations, such as solving social problems, which the engineering community hasn't been particularly vocal about, although that notion is changing.

Both women and men often find themselves going down a career path that no longer holds interest for them, and that can be true when it comes to majoring in engineering, as over 32% of women switch from STEM programs over to other fields. Only 30% who have degrees are still working in the engineering fields. Another central point Meiksins touched on: girls who attend college have a wide choice of courses they can take over previous generations. Some prefer to enroll in more female-friendly classes, some of which are not math-intensive.