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Advancing the sciences, engineering & Applications of ultraviolet technologies to enhance the quality of life & protect the environment.

Women Leave Professional Engineering for a Variety of Reasons, Many Find Employment in Related Industries

19 Nov 2014 11:50 AM | James Kerich (Administrator)

Submitted by IntlUVAssn on November 19, 2014 - 11:50am

The number of women earning a bachelor's degree in engineering has increased over the last few years.  It is apparent that more and more women are pursuing studies and careers in engineering, especially in the areas of public health and the environment.

The International Ultraviolet Association (IUVA) is an organization determined to enhance the quality of life by providing public health information and essential to the protection of the environment, by applying UV technologies to water, air and surface decontamination. "Women are increasingly achieving leadership positions in the world in engineering, not only in UV engineering but a variety of engineering fields such as mechanical, biomedical, civil, and   environmental," said IUVA Executive Director Deborah Martinez.

According to a recent research study done by American Society for Engineering Education, "Women received a higher percentage of engineering bachelor's degrees again, for the fifth straight year, climbing from 17.8 percent in 2009 to 19.1 percent in 2013" (ASEE). Depsite these figures, white males currently dominate the engineering world by at least 65.7 percent. Some women are dropping out of the field because it's incompatible with personal lifestyle needs, others are discouraged by lower pay and lack of promotions.

The increase of some women in the study of engineering has resulted in many cases from interest and aspirations developed during childhood. Rosemary Aguirre, a program director for IUVA and an engineer with a bachelor's degree in Mechanical engineering, shares her personal story: "It all began when I was a young girl helping my dad do maintenance -- whether it was things that needed replacing in the house, our vehicles, or rebuilding broken furniture. It sparked a creative side I didn't realize I had. It wasn't until high school that I became interested in engineering."

Women comprise 25% of the membership of IUVA. Engineers like Aguirre came to IUVA to participate in the organization's mission of public health awareness and promoting UV as an engineering force that helps the environment. In her words an engineer has to keep learning. Aguirre was able to network and gain knowledge from prominent women in the engineering industry such as Linda Gowman, Ph.D., Chief Technology Officer of Trojan Technologies; Kati Bell, Ph.D., BCEE, Associate at CDM Smith; and Mary Clancy, R.N., Chief Executive Officer of Healthy Interiors.

"Mary Clancy, RN, Chief Executive Officer of Healthy Interiors has opened my eyes to the impact a humble women can make in healthcare while fusing in engineering concepts," says Aguirre.  With the impact of the widening Ebola crisis, Clancy and her company, Healthy Interiors, has presented vital information on UV applications that eliminate powerful viruses such as Ebola and Neuroviruses from healthcare settings.

Women such as Aguirre, Mary Clancy, and Linda Gowman provide a sense of inspiration to younger generations of women engineers. Organizations such as Society of Women Engineers (SWE) encourage young women to join a profitable and challenging profession. IUVA also reaches out to the younger generation and promotes STEM education and careers. For those who engage in the educational and professional process, the financial rewards are great.

Aguirre notes that it is important for women to be engineers: "I have been encouraged to press forward, develop myself as a woman engineer and hopefully inspire others to come into the profession as I have been inspired. My aim is support engineering education by generating partnerships and creating programs that will prepare pre-college and first generation college students to consider careers in STEM and Healthcare," says Aguirre.

In August, The Washington Post published the article "Uncivil Work Environment Pushing Women out of the Engineering Field" by Brigid Schulte, decrying the conditions and treatment faced by women in the Engineering field.  In the article, Schulte states that women are not being hired as regularly as their male counterparts and the ones who do become employed often opt out of their jobs, due to lack of promotion and pay raises and an unfriendly work environment.  She cites statistics that although women earn 20% of all Engineering degrees, they comprise only 11% of the engineering workforce.  Statistics from institutes of higher education show that 40% of all women who graduate with Engineering degrees either quit the field or never enter the profession at all.  These findings, along with commentary by women in the field of professional engineering, suggest that antiquated gender stereotypes permeate the world of Engineering, making it difficult for women to enter the profession and successfully advance.

Olya Keen, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, has found a professional home in Engineering academia, while her husband works in Engineering consulting.  She acknowledges that there are differences between holding an academic Engineering position and one in Engineering consulting.  States Keen, "Engineering consulting and practice as opposed to academia is probably less friendly to having a personal life.  I don't see the same issues as described in the article in academia."

Even though Keen works in academia rather than consulting, she still has a window into the Engineering business world. As professor, she mentors many new female Engineering majors each year.  She is mentor to the Society of Women Engineers on campus.  At a recent networking event, many of the female Engineering students expressed concerns that they were facing inappropriate comments and invitations from their classmates.  "If it is happening in the classroom, I can see it will carry over into the workplace as well," says Keen.  "They feel a lack of women in the field and no cohesive network or support structure.  They feel outnumbered."

Despite these unfortunate odds, Keen has optimism for the future.  In fact, she hails from a country that welcomes women into the engineering field - much more freely than the United States.  "I was born in Belarus, Soviet Union.  They have a decent track record – women are encouraged to take this career path.  Half of the women in my class went into engineering or science related industries."  If other countries can achieve gender balance in the Engineering industry, there is hope for American female engineers.  To define this as a problem facing the United States instead of a global concern is shocking.  In a country that claims to be freedom-loving and considerate of human rights, the fact that other nations value women engineers more readily demonstrates profound gender stereotypes that continue to haunt this country.

Fortunately, Keen sees evidence that these changes might currently be in process for the younger, college-aged generation of women.  "Since traditionally, women have not been engineers until recently, older employees are men.  Maybe if we examine the last 10-15 years of women in the engineering profession, perspectives may be different.  For a long time, engineering was a predominately male field.  Maybe we have not reached equilibrium yet," she added.  Hopefully advances like the $13 million dollars in federal funds directly targeting women receiving STEM education will encourage and stimulate more women to enter the engineering field - establishing more gender balance in the profession.  Keen suggests that a shift in attitude is also necessary.  "It's good to have confidence that this field is an excellent one for women as far as intellectual capacity.  Changing attitudes and work environments will encourage more women to enter engineering and stay in the profession.  If school counselors offer it as a career path and it is introduced as a career option, they will take it."

While a shift in attitude can accomplish much in terms of necessary change, is it really enough to create a work environment that encourages women to stay in the field?  Many surmise that women cease working such jobs when they begin having children, yet this is one of the many stereotypes that contribute to a negative workplace situation for professional women.  Too often women are seen primarily as mothers, and therefore, incapable of holding down employment for long.  According to The Washington Post article, while this contributes to one-third of women who left the field in the last five years, a staggering two-thirds said they found better opportunities in other fields.  And those who opted to leave employment due to motherhood said this was due to the companies not accommodating "work-life conflicts."  They didn't leave for lack of trying, but because their companies did not have in place the means to accommodate women's issues.

About the general work environment, Keen sums it up, "The environment is not supportive to personal life, not just for women, but men, too.  The industry itself needs to stop for a minute, step back, and reevaluate how they treat employees." As STEM education programs become more prolific and women are encouraged to enter engineering in larger numbers, the industry will eventually evolve and adapt to contemporary lifestyles.

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