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Why we need more women engineers

india Updated: Apr 13, 2007 15:08 IST
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Moving into the 21st century, many dramatic shifts have been seen in technology, society and politics. The opening up of Eastern Europe and China, and the emergence of Southeast Asia and India as major economic engines of their regions, has created not only a new marketplace for goods and services, but it has also new competitors whose major strength will be in their vast resources of human capital.

But it's true that to provide a growing economy, much will depend on a vibrant, creative, and diverse engineering and science workforce.

In the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects have a strong demand for engineers through 2012 especially in computer/information science professions. It is projected to grow by 36 per cent. To meet this figure, the role of women workforce cannot be ignored. Statistics show that there is a wide diversity in engineering studies.

A recent survey has shown that women earned 20 per cent of bachelor's degrees, 22 per cent of master's degrees, and 17 per cent of doctoral degrees in engineering in year 2003 in the United States. The percentage for India is much lower.

Although these percentages have increased over the past several years, they are still significantly less than the percentage of female population. It is seen that there is a slight increase in proportion of women earning master's degrees as compared to those earning bachelor's degrees, while there is a decrease in proportions of women earning doctorates compared to those earning master's degrees.

Thus, more women who are prepared to do so forego the chance to earn an engineering doctorate than men. The phenomenon is known as the "leaky pipeline".

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in the US, there are significant numbers of women who are not being prepared for engineering studies. Beyond being prepared for engineering studies, other issues that are responsible for women not opting for entering or completing engineering study are:

* Lack of interest

* Lack of faculty contact, role model, mentors and peer support

* Lack of solid financial support

Further, there is low percentage (less than 10 per cent) of women working in academic positions in engineering relative to the overall percentage of women receiving engineering doctorates.

These statistics are a concern because faculty mentorship has been shown to be important to women. The lack of same-gender or same-ethnic group role models may discourage students from continuing their education.

Recent reports have shown that slight gains are being made each year, but problems with low representation persist. The percentage of women enrolled in engineering has increased in the last 25 years. The numbers, however, are still small, particularly when compared to their representation within public. Women make up an important part of the population yet represent only 23 per cent of engineering graduates.

For attracting the diverse workforce to an engineering degree, a framework has to be developed to analyse engineering studies systems. Finally, beyond the above issues the curriculum itself is a barrier for this underrepresented group.

Nearly all engineering course seems to be devoid of any social relevance. Women tend to choose majors that they perceive as having high levels of interactions with other people.

And the benefit to society is apparent. It is clear that engineering is vital to any economy and has important benefits to society. However, engineering has emphasised on technology rather than its benefits to society. It is now recognised that this perspective has limited the attractiveness of engineering as a career to many, especially women.

Serious attempts to restructure the engineering culture and pedagogy need to be examined and propagated so that in the 21st century, we can prepare students for leadership in benefiting society through innovation and will also enable a more diversified workforce.

In the future, economies will be knowledge-based. Where a nation's intellectual capital will be the measure of its ability to compete in global marketplace, women will play an important role in every country including India.

Smita Pareek can be reached at pareeksmita@rediffmail.com.

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