More women are choosing to major in engineering at Rochester-area universities, particularly in disciplines that can have an altruistic bent. Yet the number of female engineers at local firms has remained relatively flat in recent years.
The gap is not a local phenomenon.
According to "Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering," more than 20 percent of engineering school graduates nationwide are women but only 11 percent of practicing engineers are women. The 2011 study, conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and funded by the National Science Foundation, found that women tend to stick with engineering if they receive support from supervisors and co-workers.
"That's really what it's all about- making them feel welcomed and valued," says Lisa Norwood, assistant dean at the University of Rochester's Edmund A. Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "And then they're going to most likely stay."
Susan Matzat, a 27-year veteran of the engineering field, started out as an architecture major at Syracuse University but transferred to Rochester Institute of Technology to pursue engineering. Looking back, she has no regrets.
"I have had plenty of opportunities to participate in leadership roles, been able to participate in strategic planning and company policy committees," says Matzat, senior structural engineer and buildings, engineering and structural discipline leader at Rochester-based LaBella Associates P.C.
The firm employs 22 female engineers, a slight increase over the past few years.
"I've always had great experiences (on the job)," Matzat says. "I've always been treated with respect. ... I don't really see us as male and female in the workplace, but just as engineers with different skills and experience levels."
Still, some women exit the profession or never even enter it after graduation because of working conditions, travel obligations, unrelated professional interests and other issues, the "Stemming the Tide" report says.
"Engineering has traditionally been designed for white males, and as we're trying to change that perception, there are still strongholds of people who believe women can't perform, don't perform, shouldn't be there," Norwood says.
She adds: "There's also the fear when you look down the pipeline at what an engineer does. How do you manage both work and life, because the workforce hasn't particularly caught up with the fact that you don't have to work lots of hours to be a successful engineer?"
Norwood says it is a question of being aware of the special talents women bring to the profession.
"Women are much more inclusive workers," she says. "They're much less competitive than the men. ...Different isn't necessarily bad."
Despite the gap between female engineering school graduates and those who practice, local universities are not struggling to attract women to their engineering programs.
Thirty percent of engineering students at UR's Hajim School are female. The school, which awards bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees, aims to boost that figure to 40 percent within the next five to eight years.
"Two of our majors are very attractive to women-biomedical engineering and chemical engineering-and they actually right now are carrying the weight in terms of the percentages of women," says Norwood, a UR engineering school alum. "And then in some of the departments that don't have as many women, we're really trying to become more conscious of who they are, what their struggles are, making sure they've got support."
In keeping with one of the career management recommendations from the "Stemming the Tide" report, the Hajim
School began offering an elective course last semester that teaches communication skills and strategies to help students present themselves best as professionals. Male and female students in the course develop a professional communication portfolio with resumes, cover letters, technical project abstracts and other materials.
RIT's Kate Gleason College of Engineering also has maintained strong numbers of women. This fall, 175 will enter as first-year students, compared with 66 in 2007, Associate Dean Jacqueline Mozrall says.
A strong sense of community has helped bolster the ranks of female students, says Harvey Palmer, dean of the college. The high number of female faculty members also has fueled recruitment efforts, though the first step is getting prospects to apply, he adds.
"The better thing is to have ... a woman in your family who is an engineer," Palmer says.
In 2003, the Gleason College launched the Women in Engineering program, also known as WE @ RIT. It aims to bolster the representation of women engineers and prepare them for leadership roles in the profession.
The program's initiatives include Kate's Community, a series of social and professional development events, and WE're in Motion, a pre-orientation program that allows incoming first-year students to move into their dormitories early. They take part in various labs, from designing and manufacturing key chains to building artificial muscles for robotic hands, and work closely with upper-class mentors who stay in touch with them throughout the school year.
Engineering has a bit of an image problem among women, "but I think the message is getting out slowly but surely that women can have very satisfying careers as engineers," Palmer says. "But it takes generations to change the perception if you're going to rely solely on role models."
He adds: "We talk a lot about how engineers are adding a lot of intrinsic value to our society. It's not about solving mechanically oriented problems and making a lot of money and wearing a hard hat and a pocket protector (on) your shirt. It's about what the world really needs. ... It seems like women really appreciate that more than men."
The Gleason College also offers Everyday Engineering Summer Programs for fifth- through ninth-grade girls. One activity occurring in the college's Toyota Production Systems Lab gives the students the chance to disassemble and assemble skateboards, which conveys principles of cycle time and line balancing.
"They're interacting with real professors and grad students that are working there, and so there's role modeling that goes on there," says Jodi Carville, director of the Women in Engineering program and camp director. "So it creates this kind of possibility thinker in the girls."
Ranked No. 1 on the Rochester Business Journal's most recent list of engineering firms, Bergmann Associates Inc. employs 12 female engineers, one more than two years ago. Seven are civil engineers, and the others are electrical and mechanical engineers.
The proportion of female applicants for engineering jobs has remained virtually unchanged in recent years at two or three in 10, says Bill VanBuskirk, human resources director at Bergmann.
Still, identifying qualified female and minority candidates continues to be a focus in the firm's recruiting, promotions and summer internship program.
Market indicators point to the engineering industry growing in the next decade, so the outlook for women in the profession is bright, VanBuskirk says.
"I think women are underutilized, underrepresented in the engineering field," he says.
Palmer agrees: "There's no question that our global society needs more engineers. There are some really serious, immediate needs, in particular in the areas of industrial engineering and civil engineering and chemical engineering ... because of environmental issues and the crumbling infrastructure.
"Frankly, no matter what discipline you look at, there's an enormous amount of opportunity, and without a diverse workforce, we can't really address these key issues in the best possible way."
Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
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