female engineers

Landon Yarborough is one of the few female engineering students at the University of Georgia. (Photo/Henry Taylor)

Year after year, the biggest fear of graduates is whether or not they will be able to find a job. An internship one summer is the new college degree and a college degree is the new high school diploma.

Everyone is worried except for engineers. With technological efficiency constantly accelerating and only an increased demand for problem solving, engineers shouldn’t have much to worry about as far employment goes.

But what is interesting is how much of a male-dominated industry engineering is. 

Feb. 25 was Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, during which light was shed on the fact that the world of engineering is vastly male-dominated, and that women have just as much to offer in the field.

At the University of Georgia, the College of Engineering was established in 2012. It has grown since then, but still has a gender divide among its student body.

According to the engineering department’s statistics at UGA, only 24 percent of students, both undergraduate and graduate, with declared engineering majors are female, whereas 76 percent are male. 

According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, about 19.2 percent of engineers are female in the United States.

Lori Estes, a sophomore at UGA majoring in biochemical engineering, explained that she has always been interested in math and science but wasn’t sure what exactly to do with it. 

So when Estes learned more about engineering, it was the practical applications possible in the field, including helping people and problem solving, that really piqued her interest. 

“I like that it’s not just always sitting in a lab doing things as a lot of science [majors] are; it’s practical application where you can interact with people,” Estes said. “It’s a social environment, too.”

As a biological engineering major, Estes’s plans for the future include either prosthetics or tissue engineering, a field involved in rebuilding tissues for injured people. She explained she is drawn to using math and science to help and heal people.

Estes also added that though there are very few girls in her classes, she has never felt belittled or undermined by a male classmate or professor.

UGA sophomore civil engineering major Landon Yarborough has also always enjoyed math but didn’t want a career where she would crunch numbers all day. 

Engineering was the perfect way to incorporate math as well as be able to build something and actually see its effects.

Yarborough is involved with the Engineers Without Borders UGA chapter and explained that she is drawn to the side of engineering that allows her to “help people in such a changeable way.”

Other than the occasional amused look strangers give her when she tells them she is an engineering major, Yarborough said she has also never felt any specific negativity from male colleagues or classmates.

“I had an engineering internship last summer, and I never felt that I was treated differently because I was a girl, and that is something that I am really glad I haven’t had to deal with,” Yarborough said. “It gives me a lot of faith.”

Correlating to the ratio of male to female students, there is a similar statistic for male to female professors at UGA. Only eight out of 68 engineering faculty at the university are women. 

When approaching female professors with this statistic, no one was surprised.  

Hillary Tanner, an engineering professor and 1999 UGA engineering alumnus, said that when she was a student, there were “about five young women in my graduating class.”

“This fact certainly doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been with the engineering program at UGA since I started classes in 1995,” Tanner said. “There was one female professor then, and I was the third female faculty hired in engineering.”

Fellow engineering professor and Georgia Tech Ph.D. graduate Barbara McCord noted that she hasn’t felt any discrimination in the workplace or in school that she is aware of.

“I think engineers tend to be pretty accepting people, as long as you do your work,” McCord said.

Though there is an obvious disparity, neither professor has been ostracized or belittled by male colleagues throughout their careers.

“We all really supported each other; the young men were our friends,” Tanner said. “We all thought of each other as classmates dealing with the same hard classes rather than worrying about gender boundaries.”

As far as why there are far more males than females in this industry, no one is exactly sure why. Some ideas include: men are more attracted to machinery, gender roles taught at a young age steer boys more toward math and legacy plays a role in career choice. 

However, the number of females in the industry is increasing and may be providing more creativity and perspective. 

Women who pursue careers in engineering will help to create a more diverse and inclusive climate in science and mathematics-related fields, and could provide important role models for young girls who might be on the fence about pursuing their interests.

“For a young woman or girl to see women in this role is very powerful,” McCord said.

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(2) comments

smh

My daughter graduated in Dec from UGA with agricultural engineering degree/mechanical track. She had 2 summer internships which she was able to get through job fairs there. She was hired in Nov by Fortune 500 company making $60k plus 10% bonus plus $4000 signing/moving expense. She is working as an applications engineer. It is hard work, just like school was, but she is very happy. Her boss said her internships and team player attitude got her the job. Yes, she is definitely in the minority as a woman, but she says it's not a problem. She wishes she had had time to take some management/business classes as an undergrad, also, she is already traveling to Spain to work on projects there, so knowledge of Spanish would be helpful, too.
She had to work very hard at UGA - she had alot of doubts about whether she could make it, until jr year when she finally figured she could do it.
Her advice to all students would be stick with it - your hard work will pay off. Also, work with your teachers as much as you can to build a personal relationship.

heathervbryan

That is a very encouraging and powerful story. Thank you for sharing and congrats to your daughter!

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