Why close the gender gap in engineering education?

I am a proud graduate of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware. The program was in its infancy when I entered college, instantly empowering us to become pioneers in higher education. It exposed me to staggeringly brilliant people. It equipped me to dive my fists into bovine knee joints on a surprisingly regular basis. I appreciate that.

But if I could do it over, I would at least consider an alternative path—mechanical engineering with a concentration in biomedical applications—and one reason for that is Dr. Jenni Buckley. She is a MechE superstar, a household name in the College of Engineering, a person I look up to although we crossed paths by the narrowest of margins. Fortunately, guest lectures and chance encounters in Spencer Lab afforded me small doses of her jokey, genial personality.

Should I major in biomedical engineering or [insert other engineering major here]? is actually an excellent conversation for another day. I’m here to talk about Jenni Buckley’s TEDx talk on closing the gender gap in engineering: Designing for diversity.

Dr. Buckley raises a few points in this talk. To summarize:

  • The proportion of female college students in engineering has plateaued at ~20%. The proportion of females college students in STEM majors altogether continues to rise.
  • Most of that 20% is dispersed across environmental, chemical, and biomedical engineering (aka the “modern” disciplines).
  • 30% female enrollment is the target we should aim for. Otherwise known as the critical mass, this number is self-sustaining and promotes further growth.
  • Women are drawn to immediate societal impact – hence, the appeal of environmental, chemical, and biomedical prefixes.
  • Women display equal math literacy and equal college retention rate in engineering when compared to men. The bottleneck, simply put, is girls choosing other majors.
  • Pop culture has something to do with this.
  • Current outreach is not successfully increasing the proportion of women in engineering.

She concludes with a call to action. We must redesign the ways in which we attempt to close the gender gap. We must show girls that they can save the world via engineering (not just biomedical engineering, I would add) and that they do belong in these majors.

There are a few schools of thought on what to do with this information. Susan Pinker wrote in the WLS, “A key tenet of modern feminism is that women will have achieved equity only when they fill at least 50% of the positions once filled by men.” But we have all of this biology crap stating women are simply not interested in math and science or something like that (is it obvious where I stand?). Some say we can’t stop until we reach that goal of 50% while others suggest: we’ve come a long way…maybe it’s time to give it a rest. 

Here is where I actually stand. Maybe the biology crap isn’t crap. And maybe we don’t need ≥50% female enrollment in engineering. But the world needs more female design engineers for the same reason it needs more male nurses. Can you think of one product or service that affects only men or only women across the entire supply chain? Your profession has a huge impact on others. I don’t care if you are a server, an educator, a call center rep, a CEO, a janitor, a stay-at-home parent. Your voice is really really important.

I know this debate can get complicated. There are arguments to be made on the grounds of social justice, nature vs nurture, the gender wage gap, and so on. But isn’t diversity a big enough reason to, well, keep designing for diversity?