Last weekend, I had the opportunity to address more than 300 engineering professionals and engineering students at the annual conference of the Mid-Atlantic Section of the Society of Women Engineers held at Columbia University. I called the talk: “The Changing World of Engineering Practice: How can Women Prepare for Success?" You can read an abridged version of it below.
It is a real honor for me to be here and to be speaking at this SWE conference in New York City. Indeed, it was New York City itself that inspired me to be an engineer. I loved to see the monumental structures of the city – the stunning Verazzano Bridge, the historic iron-trussed Brooklyn Bridge. And there was the wonder of the subways, a spaghetti of intersecting train lines filled with endlessly interesting characters. I also liked practicing keeping my balance as the train accelerated and slowed, getting an early lesson in momentum and F=MA. So, it’s probably no surprise that I went on to become a civil engineer.
It is a truly wonderful time to be an engineer, isn’t it? Opportunities to create, design, and build are all around us, technology is revolutionizing the world at a dizzying pace. Economists talk about inventions that create whole new economies, and form the basis for decades of new economic growth. These “General Purpose Technologies” are so powerful that they disrupt and accelerate the expected trajectory of economic progress. Economists call them “innovational complementarities” meaning that their effects spread through the economy, improving productivity and fostering innovation across many sectors of the economy.
Right here in NYC, the mayor decided that the city needed a new economic growth engine, to complement Wall Street, the media industry, and other cornerstones of the New York City economy. He sent his economic advisor around the city talking to community and business leaders asking them what was missing from the NYC landscape. They said: we need more engineers in the city. We need to a way to become a center of the 21st century economy, and bringing engineers and applied scientists together with the city’s entrepreneurs and financiers is the way to do this.
In Washington, President Obama has taken the bully pulpit to endorse the STAY WITH IT program organized by the Jobs Council. This program provides incentives for college engineering students to complete their degrees. The goal is to increase the size of next year’s graduating class of engineers by 10,000, to augment the 75,000 that we normally graduate. In fact, at a speech he gave to engineering deans last month which I was privileged to attend, he talked about the “doers and tinkers” that helped build this country and how we need the same now.
For doers and tinkerers, the 1800’s was a special time. This was when they learned how to harness steam power, how to create electricity, and how to design and build the internal combustion engine. This was the era of the Brooklyn Bridge. These “General Purpose Technologies” were the foundation of the Industrial Revolution and led to the growth of the modern city. And the last few decades have seen the enormous impacts of the newest General Purpose Technology: the semiconductor, and the computerization that followed. With computerization came miniaturization and incredible capacities for data analysis. New, nano-based materials followed. They can do extraordinary things like self-heal or extract energy from sunlight in thin films that can be applied directly to windows. We are also using these new technologies to sense EVERYTHING, improving our knowledge of natural sciences and using control mechanisms to adaptively manage engineered systems.
For example, at Syracuse University the Center of Excellence and the College of Engineering and Computer Science has built a building which has sensors throughout, including a totally instrumented green roof to measure humidity, soil moisture, evaporation, and other design parameters that will ultimately lead to more effective green roof designs.
And, surely something that all of us as engineers who have struggled through semesters of calculus, physics, and countless laboratory sessions can appreciate: engineering seems to be the new cool occupation. I get a big kick out of hearing the “logistics” jingle from UPS on TV; I never thought mathematical programming would achieve such heights of commercial success. IBM advertises its efforts to build “A Smarter Planet.” As the Dean of an engineering school, I am gratified that kids have begun to realize that if they really want to help the world solve its, engineering is a direct path to success.
So, new technologies generated from the semi-conductor and computerization are revolutionizing the work engineers do. As we all know, these advances in technology have also helped to propel the globalization of the world’s economy. So, now Boeing for example has operations in 70 countries around the world. IBM does 64% of its business overseas, and design companies work 24/7 with engineers working around the clock from one time zone to another. Even small engineering firms in Syracuse may have projects in Europe and in Asia.
What does all this mean for engineers, and women in particular?
I will discuss two of the many relevant issues here. They are the need to be creative and to take risks, and the need to engage young women in engineering.
Creativity and Risk Taking
IBM did a study of CEOs and asked them what the most important attribute for a CEO was likely to be in the coming decade. Integrity and vision were important, but the most important characteristic the CEOs described was creativity. And creativity is the key to innovation. So, if you want to be an engineer who solves problems in new and different ways, being able to tap into your creative instincts is important. Psychology studies have shown, however, that while no gender differences in creative aptitude are discernible in children, by the time women are adults, they are often more inhibited than men about sharing their creative ideas. They may have less ambition to excel in creative endeavors than do men. These differences of course reflect cultural practices that are acquired in upbringing, education, and the freedom of action that a child is allowed. But there are also “creativity killers” that have been identified in the workplace. They include having a difficult supervisor; fearing failure, judgment, or appearing foolish; feeling you have to find “the right” answer (think about how many times you struggled in engineering class to do just this); and working under time pressure. Some of these may be unavoidable in the engineering workplace, but if your work is often constrained by these factors, it is likely that you are not able to do your most creative work.
And, of course using creativity implies that new ideas may emerge, and the innovator needs to be able to pursue this, and she needs to have the courage to make others believe in it. In other words, taking advantage of your creativity can mean taking risks. What does it mean to take risk? Risk occur in everyday life -you can practice taking risks every day. Take a class in art if you haven’t learned to draw, stand up to the guy in the next office who makes disparaging remarks about colleagues, or volunteer for that temporary assignment overseas.
So, nurturing your creativity, choosing a workplace that encourages creative thinking, finding the inner courage to take risks and believe in your ideas, and communicating your thoughts persuasively are going to important to you as you move through your career.
Recruiting of women into the Profession
Less than 10% of the engineering workforce are women while the percentage of women in engineering school is about 18%. At Syracuse, we have a very female-friendly faculty and a supportive environment for both men and women, and about 25% of our students are women.
The pipeline for women moving forward in engineering has many points at which women may opt in or opt out.
In particular, as you may be aware, we have learned that girls start thinking about careers in middle school. In addition, this is a time when they are vulnerable to turning off to math and science. And so they may start down a path that takes them away from the possibility of a degree in engineering. Every time I teach a course, I ask the students what got them interested in engineering. I am especially interested in the girls’ responses. I have found, and this is backed up studies, that a common response is that their father or uncle is an engineer. Once in a while now, I hear that it is because their mother is an engineer. I am hoping that over time I will hear more of that response, but I am not sure I will because we have not been increasing the number of women in engineering schools.
So, in your lives as mothers or older sisters or aunts, I encourage you to engage with the girls around you and show them the pleasures that being an engineer holds for you.
It is my belief that lots of girls who could enjoy engineering don’t see it as a career option. It reminds me of when I was young and we discussed which one we wanted to be: a nurse, a secretary or a teacher. Engineering needs to broaden the kinds of kids it draws from; focusing more on what an engineer can accomplish in her career, rather than on the math and science qualifications that are needed to enter the field.
At the Syracuse University LC Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, we are trying to be part of the solution. This summer, we are partnering with Siemens Foundation to offer two weeks of an introduction to engineering for 7th and 8th grade girls on Syracuse University’s campus. The program is called Project ENGAGE: Empowering the Next Generation, Advancing Girls in Engineering. The program is highly selective: it is aimed at high-achieving girls who have demonstrated leadership ability and broad-based interests. The hope is to both educate the girls about engineering and also expand their consideration of career options to include the possibility of include engineering.
The program is completely free, and takes girls from NY, NJ, and PA. For seventh grade girls, it focuses on Energy and Sustainability and for eighth grade girls, we will be focusing on Engineering and the Human Body. Syracuse is located in the heart of the women’s rights movement of the 19th century, so we will also be taking all the girls on a trip to the National Museum of Women’s Rights in Seneca Falls NY. We are still recruiting students so if this sounds like it might be interesting to a girl you know, please go to this website for more information.
What conclusions can we draw from all I’ve said today?
We live in a time of great technological change. This provides many opportunities for engineers to innovate, and the nation is looking towards engineering for its competitive advantage in the 21st century. Women have a major role to play in this. It is a time for us to be creative risk-takers, to approach the job market flexibly, and to do what we can individually and collectively to encourage girls and other under-represented minorities to explore the rewards that an engineering career can bring.
Thank you very much for this opportunity to speak to you.