Posted: May 01, 2010
Making the world work
Women engineers fought hard to get there but see too few following their pathBy Eric Peterson
Heather Doty is something of a rock star in the engineering world. After finishing a master's in civil engineering at CU, she went into aerospace, working on the James Webb Space Telescope at Ball Aerospace from 2002 to 2008.
Now that the telescope's design phase has given way to construction - it's slated for launch in 2014 - the 34-year-old Doty is working at Ball on star trackers: a navigation system that uses faraway stars to guide spacecraft. She's also president of her local section of the Society of Women Engineers, and lieutenant governor of the six-state region. And she's something of a rock star in the Zimbabwean marimba world to boot: She performs regularly in Boulder with her marimba quartet, Madziva Mana.
Her secret: "Pretty much no TV."
But Doty is an exception to the norm. While women have made strident gains in medicine, law and other fields in recent decades, women represented 18 percent of engineering undergraduates nationally, and just a tenth of the work force. Both numbers have declined from peaks in the 1990s.
"Engineering is one of the last fields where women are truly underrepresented," says Kristy Schloss, president of Aurora-based Schloss Engineered Equipment, which designs and makes industrial and water-treatment equipment.
Schloss believes the gender disparity in her field is largely a communication problem. "I went into engineering because I wanted to make a difference," she says. "There's nothing an engineer hasn't touched or affected. Engineers make the world work. Part of it is knowing it's an option. We're trying to raise the profile of women in engineering."
Jackie Sullivan, associate dean for inclusive excellence at University of Colorado-Boulder's College of Engineering, echoes Schloss' sentiments. "During this decade, women have been going to college in droves," she says. "We've broken through in every field but engineering. We have a tough time convincing women that engineering is a helping profession."
The problem, Sullivan says, is engineering has been messaged to students based on input - i.e. difficult math and science classes are prerequisites -rather than output - i.e. engineers solve real-world problems and improve people's lives. "You don't hear health care message itself through organic chemistry," she says. "But in engineering we have messaged ourselves through calculus and physics."
Sullivan points to a study published in The Chronicle of Higher Education concluding female first- and second-grade teachers pass on personal anxiety about math to their female students, but not the males. "When do girls develop an eroding sense of self-efficacy around mathematics?" she asks.
Sullivan explains how her interest in math was fostered. When she was in fifth grade, her teacher pulled her aside and asked why she was hiding her math skills. Later, she was advised to become a secretary before a college professor steered her into engineering. "I was very fortunate I had someone who said, ‘Yes, you can. You can do anything you want,'" she says. "We all have these stories of people who saved us from ourselves."
Not that Sullivan didn't have to fight sexism on her way to a Ph.D. in the 1970s - she was thwarted when her first choice informed her it didn't accept women. Then on her first day at her first job at a national lab where nine women held positions of authority out of 9,000 employees, a male co-worker informed her, "Blue eyes, blond hair, wide hips - you should be home making babies."
"It's a lot better environment today," Sullivan says. But it's still not close to where she would like it. Sullivan describes a critical - and worsening - disconnect between high schools and colleges: The number of seniors prepared for a collegiate engineering curriculum is shockingly low.
She notes that only a handful of African-American and Hispanic students can perform math at grade level when they graduate from Denver Public Schools, and CU-Boulder's minority enrollment (which does not include Asians) has plummeted from 9.9 percent to 5.6 percent in the past decade.
"How do we broaden participation?" Sullivan asks. She is quick to note that there is a dearth of engineers of all races and genders, especially with the looming retirement of more and more baby boomers.
Mary Petryszyn, a Colorado-based vice president for Raytheon's Integrated Defense Systems business, says women often take "the path of least resistance," and that path rarely detours into engineering. "It's a very competitive field," Petryszyn says. "You have to have a desire and a passion to compete with yourself as well as with others." Taking initiative has been a cornerstone of her career, she adds. "I've found myself begging forgiveness rather than asking permission."
The key is creating more and more students who share Petryszyn's competitive, proactive mindset. "What I've found to be most effective is getting kids engaged," she adds, citing outreach including visits to schools and Raytheon partnering with Disney on a new EPCOT Center attraction that allows visitors to design their own ride - and then they get to ride it.
"Our goal is to see if we can't invigorate the pipeline," Petryzsyn says. "Companies in partnership with the schools can make a huge difference."
For female students, "One of the biggest hurdles is being unfamiliar with the opportunities that are out there," says Sandra Scanlon, a principal with Aurora-based lighting engineering and design firm, the Scanlon Szynskie Group. In the face of this unfamiliarity, Scanlon has been heavily involved with such outreach programs as Girls Exploring Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (a.k.a. GESTEM), which brought in thousands of girls before merging with like-minded STEMapalooza last year. Scanlon is also a founding board member of the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST).
Launched in 2000, DSST now enrolls more than 600 middle- and high-schoolers and is opening a second campus this fall. Amazingly, 100 percent of the school's graduates are accepted into four-year colleges. "The kids are college-ready," says Scanlon, "no matter what career they're going to choose."
Colorado School of Mines in Golden has bucked the trend of declining enrollment of women in engineering. In 2008, just over 25 percent of Mines undergrads were women, roughly 30 percent higher than the national average. Deb Lasich is executive director of Mines' Women In Science, Engineering & Mathematics (WISEM) program. Since WISEM was established with help from a grant from Chevron in 1999, "We've basically doubled the number of female students," says Lasich, describing initiatives that run the gamut from luncheons to administrative policy changes. "It's a team effort."
In the broader, male-dominated world of engineering,"Progress is slow, but we're progressing," Lasich says.
CU's Sullivan points to the school's gender-neutral Engineering GoldShirt Program, modeled after athletic redshirt programs. The program offers a preparatory first year for students who are underprepared to study engineering right out of high school. After the GoldShirt year, students follow the four-year curriculum in the engineering major of their choice.
"I believe this program will prove to significantly increase the number of kids in engineering," Sullivan says. This year, the CU program has 16 GoldShirts, a number Sullivan would like to see hit 50. She quickly lays out the math: 50 students a year at the nation's 350 engineering colleges equals 17,500 new engineering graduates annually. Whether the number of women engineers would increase in this scenario remains to be seen.
Because of the cumulative nature of math and science, "One bad year can turn you off of it for the rest of your life," says Ball Aerospace's Doty, who's also volunteered for the aforementioned GESTEM program and its predecessor, GESET. "It's so fun. At first the girls are really quiet, then you can't get them to stop talking. If that enthusiasm for engineering only continues with a few of them, it's a huge success."
None of this is lost on Schloss. Working in the water-treatment business, she recognizes that ingrained cultural and economic factors can block progress for women all over the world. "If you get a village to pump water, girls can go to school instead of carrying water," she says. "You can change society."
Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com