The Gender Gap in Engineering

Tackling the problem of getting more women in STEM roles, particularly in engineering

According to 2019 Census Bureau estimates, the STEM workforce in the United States was roughly 10.8 million. While women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, women only account for 27% of STEM workers. And of all the STEM occupations, the smallest portion of women is in engineering at just 15%.

The following table, based on 2019 data from the US Census Bureau, shows the proportion of women to men across several engineering categories.

Occupational Category

Men

Women

Total

Percentage of Women in Occupational Group

Chemical engineers

61,820

15,479

77,299

20.0

Civil engineers

358,160

67,416

425,576

15.8

Electrical and electronics engineers

236,008

23,429

259,437

9.0

Environmental engineers

21,970

10,591

32,561

32.5

Industrial engineers, including health and safety

205,133

51,393

256,526

20.0

Mechanical engineers

299,637

28,544

328,181

8.7

Nuclear engineers

6,376

1,229

7,605

16.2

Petroleum engineers

24,013

5,256

29,269

18.0

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2019 American Community Survey. For more information, see https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/

Why are there so few women in engineering?

Women engineers have been contributing to technological advances for centuries, well before the creation of the term “engineer.” Yet, over time, the number of men in the field of engineering has increased faster than women, and that divide has shown little narrowing in recent years. So why are there so few women in engineering today? Here’s a few reasons:

1. Gender stereotypes in STEM

The stereotype that men are more naturally talented than women are in engineering and other STEM fields has deterred women from getting into engineering. These types of gender-based stereotypes not only influence women’s career choices but also the retention of women in engineering who must deal with the pervasive discrimination and gender bias that exists within their industry.

Girls are told early in life that boys and men are superior when it comes to math and science and that girls ought to be gentle, agreeable, and noncompetitive—traits unsuitable for a career in engineering.

2. Lack of engineering role models

There is power in representation. When we have a role model that looks like us, it’s aspirational. It sends the message that someone like us can achieve their dreams too. Although there have been plenty of women in engineering that could and should be role models, they are often overlooked or erased altogether from the narrative. Without a spotlight shining down on women in engineering and on engineering as a viable career choice for women, girls have fewer role models to look up to and won’t pursue engineering as a result.

3. Insufficient exposure to STEM for K-12 students

Exposing students to STEM as early as kindergarten has many benefits. Here are five of the biggest benefits of STEM education:

  1. The ability to think critically and evaluate problems from different angles
  2. Encourages experimentation and a “let’s see if this works” attitude
  3. Teaches to embrace mistakes and understand they’re part of the learning process
  4. Sparks imagination and creativity, leading to new ideas and innovations
  5. Fosters collaboration and teamwork to find solutions to problems

How to get more women in engineering

It’s often said that when a problem isn’t fully understood, any solutions only create new problems. We now know that gender stereotypes and a lack of role models are contributing factors to the lack of women in engineering. So, what can be done to get more women in engineering?

1. Amplify the voices of women in engineering

Gender equity and representation in engineering is imperative. For women to reach leadership roles or even gain entry, it’s important to amplify their voices. Read women’s stories, share their stories, attend webinars and events about and hosted by women, and support women-led initiatives. Inspire young girls to pursue their interests, and not just settle for what society often dictates. Spotlight trailblazing women in engineering and STEM fields all year round, not just during women’s history month.

2. Engage young girls early in their education

The truth is that exposure to STEM in school leads to more workers in STEM. We also know that exposing youth to STEM yields several positive results, including building perseverance and determination. Educators, administrators, parents, and anyone with power to influence must combat the stereotype that STEM fields are inherently areas that only boys can succeed and thrive in.

As a STEM recruitment company, we feel it’s also important that businesses like ours also try to reach our youth and raise awareness about STEM careers. SThree, Progressive’s parent company, has established partnerships with several organizations, including Project SYNCERE and UrbanEd, which works to support and develop young men and women from underrepresented communities with technology-driven education.

3. Take a stand against sexism and gender bias

Raising awareness about stereotypes and gender biases is not enough. Experts at Harvard developed what’s called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT. The results revealed that 76 percent of participants associated men with career and women with family. These biases play an enormous role in keeping women from entering STEM fields. It’s important to not only acknowledge how harmful biases are, but also learn how to counteract them. When others display biased behavior, speak up and use the moment to educate. Visit 50 Ways to Fight Bias to learn more about how you can combat the biases women fact at work.

If you're seeking career opportunities in engineering and STEM related fields, Progressive is here to support you. Contact us today to get in touch with a consultant!

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