Happy International Women in Engineering Day! #INWED #TransformTheFuture
Please allow me to introduce myself – my name is Stephen Ciatti and I am a Principal Engineer for Advanced Engines at the PACCAR Technical Center and the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Automobile Engineering. I realize that it may be a bit unusual for a middle-aged male to write a blog post extolling the virtues of diversity and inclusion for INWED but I hope that I can provide some perspective as a person who has worked in a highly technical field for over 30 years.
When I started as an engineer almost 30 years ago, there were a few female engineering students in my classes but only a handful. They stood out if they missed class or asked a question. They seemed a bit self-conscious and, as I got to know several of them, they faced challenges and hurdles that were grossly unfair. Professors outright telling them they did not belong here. Other male students telling them they did not deserve to be here and they were occupying a spot better allocated for men. It amazes me that as many of them fought their way through the program as they did.
Fast forward to 2019. The numbers of female engineers have increased over the years but not at the rate that other professions have seen. For example, new medical school and law school admissions are much more evenly balanced by male/female admissions compared to most of engineering, which hovers around 10-15% female enrollment. This baffles me. Other professions have done a better job of inclusion than has engineering and, collectively, we need to figure out how to change the culture of engineering to ensure we are not leaving talented people behind. It makes no sense to the advancement of our 21stCentury engineering community if we are ignoring the voices of almost half of our human population.
As an engineer, the default position for me is to analyze the problem and to try to develop solutions. Ignoring a large portion of our collective society has profound impact upon the types of technologies that are developed and how our society engages with those technologies. We desperately need female participation in the engineering/technology development area for the betterment of the whole. The question is “How do we do this?” How does the engineering community become a welcoming place for engineers of all backgrounds and demographics? How do we create a community where women feel welcome and valued?
In observing my daughters and their friends go through their educational paths, one thing struck me as I watched. Elementary school girls seem to be pretty fearless about engaging with science and math – they loved building things and had little self-consciousness with boys their age not being supportive. Most often they rather enjoyed beating the boys at Science Fair or on science tests. However, this seems to change significantly once the kids hit about age 11 or grade 6. I noticed both with my daughters and their friends, a significant amount more attention being paid to what their peers say about them, what they perceive doing a particular activity “says” about them – “that’s too nerdy”, “I don’t want to look like a dork”, “only the nerds are in Science Club” – stuff like that. Just in my anecdotal observation, it seems that middle-school girls struggle with their self-image and self-perception much more than middle school boys do, in particular surrounding science and technology.
The boys seem to be blissfully unaware of how silly and immature they look, for better or for worse. The statistics seem to imply that it is in these middle school years where we seem to be losing the girls in science and technology. The participation and engagement level appears to drop off precipitously in the 11-14 age group for girls.
This is why I am very excited about activities like INWED! When people see others just like them succeeding in a profession, they are much more inclined to believe they can pursue that profession themselves. There are countless success stories of women in Science and Engineering – many of these stories have been suppressed or hidden because it has been primarily men telling all the STEM stories. Activities like INWED allow women to inspire others to follow in their footsteps, to create their own successful story.
As we go forward collectively as a community, I’m hopeful that events like INWED, organizations like the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and several others continue to reach and inspire young girls that science and engineering are for THEM! Our community needs THEIR voices and THEIR contributions! The 21st Century problems that need solving (climate change, energy and power distribution, transportation, communication) are going to require that all of us are rowing oars in the same direction. We cannot allow half of our most talented people to sit on the sidelines, disengaged, because of culture and social convention.