Engineering’s Gender Diversity Problem

By Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen

Recently, I was invited to give a talk about the future challenges of engineering education to a group of mechanical engineering department chairs from around the Northeast. While preparing for the talk, I researched data on the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the top six engineering disciplines for the last 10 years. The data was an ephiphiny (at least to me). First, of the approximately 100,000 bachelor’s awarded among all engineering disciplines, more students – 28 percent – received mechanical engineering degrees in 2016 than any other discipline; in fact, more than twice as many as the next most popular discipline, electrical engineering at 12 percent, and the gap is growing fast. My audience was very proud that theirs has become the dominant discipline. Then I hit them with the epiphany.

Only 13.8 percent of mechanical engineers bachelor’s degrees were awarded to females, a figure barely changed from a decade ago. The national average for all of engineering – boosted by a combination of several smaller disciplines – has been around 20 percent. I told the chairs that the real epiphany in these data is that the rapid and incomparable rise and dominance in mechanical engineering enrollments might mean that no single discipline is doing more to promote gender disparity than their own. In fact, I fail to see how gender equality could occur in engineering unless their discipline, perhaps in tandem with electrical engineering with 12.7 percent female, led the solution. I also noted the irony that of the 35 chairs in the audience only one of them (our own Alice White from Boston University) was a female.

Gender disparity has long been an issue in the engineering profession, and many engineering schools, including ours, have established outreach programs aimed at attracting more young women. The makeup of my audience prompted me to question whether those programs have been successful, so I asked whether they have designed programs to attract more females specifically to mechanical engineering. They returned blank stares.

Why does the most popular engineering discipline attract so few females? I have posed this question to my faculty, decanol colleagues and advisory board representing leaders in the corporate world. Although there is no consensus, there are some opinions that may offer us a way forward.

Some engineering deans and employers have hypothesized that females shy away from mechanical engineering because they don’t have experience using power tools and machine shops, and making things in middle and high school, and they perceive mechanical as a discipline for people who have had such experiences. Yet, ironically, many of my colleagues believe that most male mechanical engineering students don’t have such experience either. Another hypothesis is that females do not realize that mechanical engineering engages creative design, robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, 3D printing driven by creative computer design and many other math and science skills that have nothing to do with power tools.

In our increasingly interdisciplinary profession, the skills of the mechanical engineer are essential and must be synthesized with others in fields like electrical, computer and systems engineering. Innovation to meet society’s challenges must be a cooperative venture that involves creators from more than one discipline and gender working together with the essential people, skills of communication, and networking. Neither gender has a skills advantage and we need both to participate equally. As a simple example, consider autonomous vehicles which require human-centered design at the intersection of mechanical, electrical, software and systems engineering. It will impact sustainability and climate, urban efficiency and function, and quality of life, particularly for the elderly who seek ways to remain mobily interactive members of society.

At Boston University the proportions of women in our undergraduate mechanical, electrical and computer engineering programs are approximately double their respective national averages. I cannot say for certain why, but I suspect the our foundational philosophy of “Creating the Societal Engineer,” along with the inclusion of multi-disciplinary concentrations that we offer, have something to do with it. As you will read in this issue’s cover story, concentrations give our students the option of adding a cutting-edge, multidisciplinary field to their major. These concentrations open their minds to how they can engage with engineers from other disciplines, even others like business people and community leaders, to innovate new technologies and products.

Emphasizing the interdisciplinary, collaborative, and societal nature of all engineering disciplines are avenues worth pursuing as we seek to attract more women to the profession. Boston University has made some headway, but no one engineering school can solve the challenge. This is a national challenge and the data indicate that mechanical and electrical engineering must explicitly impact gender equity in their respective disciplines, or we as a nation will never reach gender equity in engineering.