May 23, 2016

By: Karen Bartleson, IEEE President-elect

Bartleson Karen_photo

I love my chosen profession – I love being an electronic engineer.  But I must admit that for many years my focus has been almost exclusively trained on being the best engineer I could be and less so on the particulars of being a “woman engineer.”

On 23 May, I will have the pleasure of participating in the IEEE Women in Engineering’s (WIE) International Leadership Conference in San Jose, California. It’s another activity that has given me cause to devote a great deal of thought to “women in engineering.” I’ve taken time to consider the uniqueness of women’s experience in technology and engineering; I’ve considered the importance of having more women in our chosen fields; and I’ve considered what engineers can do – male and female – to make that happen.  I urge you to do the same.

It wasn’t until my sophomore year at Cal Poly, after encountering some members of the local chapter of The Society of Women Engineers that I gave any serious consideration to a becoming an engineer. Actually, until then I didn’t even know there was such a field as engineering. My mother was a scientist and my father was an English professor in the U.S. Air Force, and I had never been exposed to engineering. But the more I learned about it, the more it appealed to me.  I very much enjoyed and seemed to have a knack for math and science.  The notion of applying science and logic to solve problems for people inspired me.  The opportunity to make a living while making a positive difference in the world sealed it for me.

So I decided to take the leap, and later that year declared myself an “Engineering Major.”  The fact that I was a “woman engineering major,” didn’t really occur to me. I didn’t set out to prove anything or to be an activist or iconoclast.  The fact that my chosen career path ran straight into male-dominated terrain was an after-thought because I didn’t realize that engineering was typically a “man’s field”.  But once the engineering classes began, and I found myself to be, more often than not, the only female in the room, that fact became starkly apparent.

Yet for the remainder of my undergraduate and post-graduate studies, and through much of my professional career, I never dwelled on it much.  I was comfortable collaborating and working with men.  As long as the playing field was level; and I had an opportunity to show what I could do; the rest would take care of itself, I assumed.  But in retrospect, that approach was probably a little bit of wishful thinking and perhaps even a little naïve.

Thankfully, our profession and our society have evolved considerably since I first started out. Together with most professional women of my generation, I was subjected to the subtle and not-so-subtle condescension; the inappropriate remarks; the soft exclusion; the double-standards.  Fortunately, these incidences were few and far between. A while ago, I experienced what it’s like to discover (by chance) that male colleagues – supposedly my equals and peers – were being paid substantially more than I for the same job responsibilities.  I also got to experience what it’s like to be passed over for a promotion in favor of a less qualified male.  Shortly thereafter, I informed my employers that I did in fact get and accept a promotion – at another company. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of my male colleagues today wouldn’t tolerate, let alone participate in that kind of behavior or discrimination, but I haven’t much doubt that it is still goes on.

As President-elect of IEEE, I have made interacting with and supporting our Young Professionals a primary priority.  And I am very pleased to see how diversity and inclusion is second-nature to our professions’ next generation.  But even in our more enlightened society, women in engineering and other STEM fields are still underrepresented. We still face unique professional challenges — not the least of which involve reconciling parenthood and career — and a playing field that is not yet entirely level.  These issues must be discussed and they must be resolved – not for women’s sake, but for engineering’s sake and by extension, for the sake of humankind.

The global population is expected to gain another two billion people by the middle of this century.  Technology has some work to do if we are to sustainably feed, hydrate, power, move, house, and see to the health of 9-10 billion people from the same finite supply of natural resources. With so much at stake, can we really afford to squander the talents and abilities of half the population?  Of course we can’t.

Yet, according to some studies, the density of women in STEM careers over the past 30 years has actually decreased.  The precise nature of the problem varies by geography and culture, but the trend is a downward one. According to the National Science Foundation, women represent just 13% of engineers and little more than 8% of electrical and electronic engineers in the U.S.  I certainly don’t believe this is because girls are not as capable as boys in learning STEM!

In the Middle East (UAE to be exact) the numbers of men and women studying engineering is more evenly balanced. But as colleagues have related to me, most often women engineering graduates elect to forgo a career and dedicate themselves to being a wife and mother.  In Eastern Europe, specifically Armenia, the company I worked for would hire substantial numbers of engineering interns, at least half of which – possibly more – were female. Not surprisingly, the number of women engineers at that company seemed to be more on par with that of men.   Globally, the general accepted participation rate of women in STEM careers sits somewhere around 30 percent.

The low numbers of women in engineering and technology is a complex challenge. I don’t pretend to have all the answers.  But one thing is for certain – this challenge and these questions highlight why IEEE Women in Engineering is such a worthwhile and necessary organization.  We engineers – irrespective of gender – must ask, explore and debate these questions.  Toward that end, I am very much looking forward to this month’s WIE International Leadership Conference.  I am eager to discuss these important issues with my IEEE colleagues from around the world, and hopefully, to get closer to the eventual solutions.


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