Women engineering students

Female engineering students remain a minority at UCLA, reports the Daily Bruin. Only 20 percent of engineering students at UCLA are women. That’s about average, and the numbers have leveled off or fallen slightly in recent years.

(Sophia) Wong is one of few girls working on the Ragobot game project that uses nickel titanium alloys (material that when destroyed, can restore its original shape) to build the terrain that the robot destroys. The game could revolutionize the toy industry and the material could prove to be a substitute for hydraulic systems in the airplane industry, Wong says. There are two female full-time employees in the lab, with a third one on the way along with eight male students from both UCLA and Yale University.

. . . In a 2002-2003 survey conducted by the American Society for Engineering Education, the organization found that while about 15 percent of women received bachelors’ degrees in electrical engineering, a significantly higher 42 percent women received the same degree in environmental engineering.

At UCLA, a high percentage of engineering students are Asian-American, like Wong and like my daughter’s freshman roommate.

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  1. 1) Women and non-Asian minorities have always (at least since the mid 60’s when I was an engineering undergrad) been a small percentage of engineering students.

    2) Because engineering programs are hard work, math, logic, and science intensive in College and require similarly oriented preparation in high school, many students seek an easier non-engineering career path.

    In spite of the above, hiring managers in the engineering fields are strongly pressured to hire (qualified) women and minority (again, Asians don’t count) candidates and the pressure is to hire percentages of candidates so that the resultant corporate engineering population will be representative the general population – e.g. 50% men/50% women in the general population therefore we must have 50% female engineers in our company.

    It is “challenging” to find and hire that which is not or minimally there to hire. I have a GREAT young female engineer, but finding one, who is qualified, can get security clearances, and who wants to do real hands on engineering is an EXCEEDINGLY small % of the engineering population which in itself is a small % of the population.

  2. Nice article (NOT!!). The only engineering prof. that was quoted is a dean. Besides him, education, “psychobiology”… No woman engineering prof. was willing to go on the record? How many 16-yr. olds headed to UCLA really think that engineer means a train operator? And what other factors in being away at college might have given her that ulcer?

  3. Bluemount says:

    I was a technical female in 70’s, I liked to tell people the difference between me and the guys was my grade were better. I was perceived as taking a good job away from a family man. It was very difficult time and sometimes even dangerous for women moving into financially competitive areas. On a personal level becoming mechanical was not immediately intuitive to me, even though my training had been very hands on. It took me longer to become proficient at the job because I was raised to be a housewife and the guys were afraid they would be sigmatized by working with me. Women are facing different problems today.”

    Now I work in IT but, the women are all in management. There are some exceptional technical women, but they are more rare than exceptional technical men. This seems to be a class distinction, the technical work is still work and management is more visible. So in the interest of empowering women, sometimes they get empowered right out of skill curve. I believe highly technical people, the rare exception in either gender, are gifted in ways that often don’t show up on test and the technical arena is a salvation for them. So often people who have some subtle disadvantage such as language (Asain), dyslexia, obsessive behavior etc are the ones who gravitate to the opportunity.
    When I studied electronics, and when I took programming classes there were increasing numbers of women throughout the 80’s. Now it seems very polarized by gender and I’ve thought it was because there were more pleasant options. Some kid told me I was doing ‘funny math’. He wanted me to rewrite my code so it was less efficient and more readable. This seems to be the new logic in teaching math. It seems like ‘funny learning’ to me. I wonder if the emphasis on language skills doesn’t hurt some people. Women who would excell in a technical area are only recognized as ‘not management’ material.

  4. Richard Brandshaft says:

    I hope Rita C will comment; if I understand her posts, she had a tecnical education and decided on another path.

    I am coming to the tentative conclusion that one of the differences between girls and boys is that more girls grow up to be elementary school teachers and nurses and more boys grow up to be techies.

    In 1963, when I graduated with a BS in EE, Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honorary fraternity, did not admit women. There was serious discussion about whether women were inherently unsuited to engineering. “The Feminine Mystique” was published that year.

    There were few women in engineering. Why seemed obvious.

    Flash forward 41 years. The granddaughters of the women who read “The Feminine Mystique” in their youth are at college age. I didn’t take note of programs or dates, but I believe there have been affirmative action programs for women in engineering and science for over 20 years. There are still few women in engineering. Why may not be as obvious as it seemed.

    Cultural memory is tricky. Some important lessons are forgotten at once. (“…condemned to repeat it.”) Sometimes, people’s minds can be stuck in the past for decades. The memory of past discrimination still exists in engineering. Furthermore, techies like being techies. If someone with the ability to be a techie chooses not to, there must be something wrong somewhere. Discrimination is the obvious suspect.

    OK, I said “tentative conclusion”. Will women with experience please reply?

  5. I have a rant here about the HUGE amount of nonsense that is written on the issue of women in information technology, together with dozens of examples of mutually inconsistent, and often self-inconsistent, articles purporting to explain and solve this “problem”.

  6. Bluemount says:

    If I had unlimited choice when I was a kid, I would have studied art. I needed a job, and wanted money. I don’t buy that women can’t compete, because I see too many men who get by when they aren’t that good. I know lots of women who have earned the respect they deserve. The women who excell apply themselves and build skill, if they don’t apply themselves they aren’t that good. I do believe women are more timid about accepting the challenge, perhaps they are more afraid of competition and reluctant to enter an area that is critical and unsupportive. Asian women don’t have a problem going into IT. Why? I think the biggest issue is getting them through the training. It’s a good argument against single sex education, if they are too isolated they don’t want to go into male dominated areas.

  7. What’s the problem? Try swapping Nursing for Engineering and swapping each women’s name with a man’s name. How does the article sound?

    Twenty percent? That’s a big increase over the few percent when I was in engineering at the U. of Michigan. I would have loved 20 percent. Oops, maybe I should rephrase that. My wife has been a Sr. Unix AdMin for a long time and there seems to be a much higher percentage (than 20 percent) of female technical employees, programmers, DBAs, managers, etc. in the companies where she has worked. The women are as aggressive, capable, incompetent, obnoxious, and technical prima donnas as the men. She has seen no pattern in all of her technical jobs over the years. Well, perhaps there have been some men who have trouble with technically competent women.

    I agree with LTEC. I am a member of ACM and have seen many of these articles. I just ignore them, they are so silly. I think ACM has been hijacked by university professors and non-technical people. I never read the Communications of the ACM and even SIGGRAPH is going downhill. I am digressing.

    What is the problem? Many women are missing a chance to do something that they might really enjoy doing for a career. And, many men might be missing an enjoyable career in nursing. Why? I see it starting in the very early grades by the parents, teachers, and peers.

  8. superdestroyer says:

    What of the great unspoken reasons women (and what we really mean here is white women) are not going into engineering (and the hard sciences) is the huge prescence of Asians. White girls from the suburbs just do want to compete in fields where half the people are named Kim, Patel, and Yu.

    Look at the number of rich, white suburban kids at places like Duke who start out as science and engineering majors and quicly switch to poli sci and economics (look at Chelsea Clinton as the poster child or such behavior).

  9. Bluemount says:

    SD, although you’re correct regarding ‘White women’, I sure don’t see Black or Hispanic women recieve technical recognition. But, competing with Asian’s isn’t a problem. Actually, the focus on language vrs math has improved this bond. It makes the transition from other cultures easier when work is organized and articulated; corporations like it because the results are predictable. Asian women have not experienced the boon to salary or prestige that Asian men have and tend to be strong leaders for women’s rights.

  10. Richard Nieporent says:

    LTEC has hit the nail on the head. Nobody is preventing women from going into computer science. As someone who has been teaching in a Master’s Degree program in computer science for twenty five years, I have seen the changes in the demographics of women in computer science. When I first started teaching it was rare that women constituted more than 20% of my classes and many times I had a smaller percentage. When the boom in computer science came and undergraduate programs were limiting the number of students who could major in computer science I saw a large increase in the number of woman, to where in many cases they constituted more than half of my classes. At that point I assumed that this was a permanent change and that unlike the hard sciences and engineering there would be equal numbers of women and men in computer science. One reason I thought that would be the case is that unlike the other sciences and engineering, CS students are required to take fewer advanced mathematics courses. However, I was quite wrong in my assumptions. As the total number of students going into in CS has dropped, the percentage of women has decreased dramatically to the point that they now constitute the same percentage as when I started teaching 25 years ago. In fact, in one of the classes I am currently teaching I have zero women out of 19 students.

    I do not know what has caused this decline in the number of women, especially after they had reached equal numbers with men. My guess is that they are going into professions such as law and medicine that have higher prestige and remuneration than CS.

  11. I don’t think elementary schools are at fault for boys and girls preferring different school subjects; I blame brain chemistry.

    A male’s brains work radically different from a female’s. For example, women are generally better at language subjects like English because the language area of their brains is larger and divided evenly between the right and left hemispheres; men have a larger spatial reasoning center.

    I’m pretty sure that boys and girls will continue to be interested in different things until the end of time, barring extensive genetic engineering.

    And I’m okay with that. I think the world would be a much less interesting place if men and women thought exactly the same.

  12. superdestroyer says:


    What I implied is that any time you here a discussion about not enough women being involved in something, it really means that not enough white women are involved. The educational, media, and governmental elite do not considered black and hispanic women to be anywhere near the equals of their white female daughters. Just look at how Title IX has been twisted to overwhelming beneift white girls from the suburbs.

    To claim that white girls not having a problems competing with Asians in the classroom goes in the face of all of the statistics. Whites (and especially white females) are abandoning the technical fields in college. And the reason why? Because they do not want to commit to the lifestyle it takes to be competitive in the hard science when the fields are filling with Asian Americans who work much harder than the white kids.

    Just look at a college campus (like UCLA) on a fall weekend. Do you think that those students are the tailgate parties and football games are named Hsu or Le?

  13. John from OK says:

    I am a computer programmer. It’s boring. It pays well. Why do I sacrifice career satisfaction for income? Because I’m single. I have to earn as much as I can, within reason. If I ever get married, I’ll still be expected to utilize my skill set and earn what I can, within reason.

    Not all engineers think like me, not all women spurn high income professions, and not all women chase men who have good careers. But on average, men gravitate to the higher earning professions because we have to.

  14. BruinChiq says:

    As a 2002 UCLA graduate, I can vouch that the engineering program is quite difficult. However, I knew lots of females in the program and ironically lots of them went to sporting events and the gym frequently. The truly disturbing program that I know of exists at USC, where my best friend from high school graduated as the only female in mechanical engineering in her class, and only 4 others graduated from EE. Working at Northrup Grummond, she has lots of female friends and ironically there aren’t a lot of Asian women who work for the company. Most of the women who dropped engineering went into computer science at UCLA. Very rarely did a “south campus” major migrate to “north campus” when they knew they had strengths in math and science.

  15. Bluemount says:

    Whites (and especially white females) are abandoning the technical fields in college. And the reason why? Because they do not want to commit to the lifestyle it takes to be competitive in the hard science when the fields are filling with Asian Americans who work much harder than the white kids.

    Computer science was abandon when they were the early round of huge layoffs in the early 90’s. Computer Science was ideal for women up to that point because it had zero reliance on physical strenght, aggressive skilled women had a solid chance.
    The earliest Asian immigration in the 80’s did have Civil Rights support. In some Asian countries children are taught from English textbooks and learn English in school. They prepare for the possibility that a very few of them may be able to pursue a career in the US. This is a critical role in their lives because some of these countries are only very tiny islands that are gobbled up by nearing nations and drawn into oppressive conflict. In India they often speak English as a result of being occupied by England. But each country has it’s own story.. I don’t intend on boring you with the obvious but these are such pressing realities. They displace the origonal intent of Civil Rights which was to reverse the damage of slavery that remained in this country. That effort was shortlived. I think many of the Asian I work with express a geniuine desire to conintue that work until we are truely a free country. But what we are really talking about is the fact the women’s movement stole Civil Rights.
    I know that women at huge statistical levels prefer management to ‘hard science’ and unfortunately Computer Science has been placed in that lump. Some of this is clearly due to the appeal of short hours in teaching at a professional pay (if you really want to be an artist or muscian it’s a good part time job). 75% of the teachers in the US are White women, when they aren’t in management of or health related services (like social work or psychology). There’s no doubt about it they prefer the unmeasurable and subjective. It doesn’t eliminate the women who are just talented. The bottom line is talent doesn’t take a racial or cultural preference it takes work preference to excell.
    The point I find most frusttrating is the US and Europe don’t produce the numbers of degrees in math and science that Asian countries do. Europe is actually lower than the US and I take a lot of flack because they view Americans as uncouth workaholics. The Asian countries view us as frequently incorrect and lazy. I think we fit someplace in the middle of those opinions. Asian women understand ruthless competition better than upper class White women in the US. The way I see it played out is White women get a promotion and then they get laid off. I like the solidness of math and science because it’s more predicatable and reality based than the fantasy fields. I’m sure it is easier than teaching but the hours are very long and it is very dull. Sorry to ramble but I’m in a hurry.

  16. “What’s the problem? Try swapping Nursing for Engineering and swapping each women’s name with a man’s name. How does the article sound?”

    The median pay of an electrical engineer is now around $87,000. Nursing salaries must be substantially lower than this. Both jobs are often high-stress with long hours – nursing probably worse than engineering, because it’s not often that an engineer’s mistake can kill someone.

    Of course, the rest of the story is what it takes to get the degree and to keep current in the job. Five-hour homework problems are common in engineering classes – not five hours of homework, one problem that takes five hours to work out. Then you graduate, and you find that you don’t know what is needed to actually work at any particular job – but you do know how to hit the books and learn what is needed for each job, and even each project. I very much doubt that nursing students have to work that hard (I knew one very, very bright nursing student that switched to a physics major because the classes were so boring), or that nurses have so much new information to assimilate every month.

    So why does one field attract men and the other attract women? I have two theories:

    1) Women are sane, men often aren’t. That is, testosterone leads men to look for chances to prove themselves on unreasonably difficult challenges, while women prefer a field where they are less likely to crash and burn. I think this is a biological difference, independent of social pressures, and so there are always going to be more men on the peaks of achievement, as well as many more abject failures among men.

    2) In our society, men worry more about payscales than women. Men get their identities from their job, women don’t. Men expect to have to provide rather more than 50% of the family income.

  17. Mad Scientist says:

    One problem that a lot of you seem to be missing is what various degrees used to mean as far as advancing up the social ladder. There was a time when hourly factory workers wanted their kids to become engineers because they saw forst hand that the engineers they worked with made a hell of a lot more money and the perception that the engineers did not work as hard. Engineers pushed their kids to be at least engineers, but also pushed them to become doctors and lawyers because they made more money.

    Now with the economy moving to a service economy, people see the lawyers and doctors as being the ones who are making the big dollars. There is no longer a perception that engineers make “good” money. And why not? Compare the average starting salary for engineers across all disciplines and you come away with something on the order of $40,000 per year with no experience to that starting salary of lawyers, usually a lot closer to 6 figures.

    So why should white man and women go into engineering when there is far more money to be made as doctors and lawyers?

  18. markm wrote:

    “The median pay of an electrical engineer is now around $87,000. Nursing salaries must be substantially lower than this. Both jobs are often high-stress with long hours – nursing probably worse than engineering, because it’s not often that an engineer’s mistake can kill someone”

    My point was not to compare engineering with nursing, it had to do with preconceived ideas, like swapping the word white for black in an article on race.

    Is the goal of education to make women be like men (or equal in all percentages), to help students make the most money in a career, or is it to help individuals expand their horizons and find out what works best for them? Is it OK to worry about how many women are going into engineering, but not worry about how many men are going into nursing, or teaching, for that matter? The goal of education is to open doors, not close them. The argument over nuture versus nature doesn’t matter when you are dealing with individuals.

  19. Mad Scientist says:

    Steve, I had missed that quote. Two points:

    1) While the median pay of an Electrical Engineer is approximately $87,000, a starting salary is probably much closer to $40,000. Which BTW, is close to what nurses are making, given the supply vs. demand.

    2) I find it quite amusing that there is a notion that an engineer’s mistake does not often kill someone. When it does happen, it makes the headlines. Anyone remember Bhopal (an engineering design flaw)? How about the shopping center in Kansas City that collapsed a few years ago? What about the Paris airport this year? Engineering mistakes can and do kill people, often in spectacular fashion.

  20. Bluemount says:

    I believe people prefer stability to a high paycheck, most people are happy to be middle class. IMO, we are creatures of ritual and most desire a predictable life. The desire for stability and the creation of systems that identify a winner tend to produce a stagnant elitism.

    I think one reason tech jobs are high pay is because it takes so long to become proficient and the work is cyclical. The result of the development cycle is long hours for narrow skill sets and then jobs dissapear. Processes work very well for managing a stable product but not very well for new products. In reality the same idea may fail several times before a prototype becomes a real machine (I mean that it should if everyone is doing their job). Creative success bubbles up the ladder and stability clamps down. The creative bubbling disappears when the need dissapears, the stablizing clamp becomes stagnation and corporations collapse because no one is buying a buggy whip.

    Corporations would like to expand their reach to global control. It eliminates the risk of war and unions. I believe the high pay is partly because to cover the expense of foreign exchange. The desire for language and communication skills over science and math is growing regionalized skill that favors the cheapest bidder (Asian countries teach math, science and English. In the US we teach communicators to be cooperative and document.).

  21. MS, very few of us get to work on such projects. I’ve been working as an EE since 1987. If I utterly ignored all safety standards in designing electronics, I might have created something that could electrocute one person or started one fire – but there’s a 99.9% chance someone else would have caught the error first. Nothing I’ve done is big enough to be capable of a spectacular failure. If I had gone into designing airplane control system, spectacular failures would be possible – but I would also be part of a large team, with many people checking my work, and a long and thorough certification process required by law. Building collapses fall into the domain of structural & civil engineers, and as I understand it their work is also supposed to go through a long process of checking for errors. Evidently, sometimes they take shortcuts, or someone signs that he’s checked something when he didn’t. There are also problems with systems so complex that the whole team misses possible interactions or oscillatory modes. But in any case, an engineering catastrophe requires the work of many engineers over a period of months or years.

    OTOH, although the job is far simpler, any one nurse can get prescriptions mixed up and kill a patient any day…

  22. superdestroyer says:

    Mad Scientist

    You might not have notice but medicine and the biological sciences are beginning to be dominated by Asian as much or even more than Engineering. In addition, over half of law school graduates never practice law and many make well below six figures.

    Look at the children of the law two Democrat presidential nominees. Gore has a daughter who is married to a physician and is a stay at home mom. Gore’s other daughter writes for television shows. Kerry’s has a daughter who makes movies.

    The rich white kids these days all want to direct movies, produce plays, or manage night clubs. They are just not into the heavy lifting of their engineering school or medical school.

  23. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Had I stayed in the army I would have retired in 1967. Had I stayed an electrician I would have retired in ’95. Instead I became an engineer who will keep at it until I can’t pay the E&O premium. Like a great many engineers, I am an engineer because I can not imagine being anything else. Also like most real engineers I consider environmental engineering to be akin to Sunday Supplement Scientist or politician.