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The Trouble With Women in Engineering .....

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Oooh this could be dangerous, so I will state my position from the off.


The trouble with women in engineering is that there doesn't appear to be enough of them and as an egalitarian I don't really know why.


Why, when I go to CLA Summits I am confronted with a sea of male faces and <5% female faces.


Is it because women can't get engineering into their fluffy little brains?

All the evidence is that this is nonsense of the highest order.

But perhaps we should first watch this public information film.


Looking at history... Women were the first programmers, they were the mental mathematicians with the dedication and accuracy required to design the software for the Apollo missions.


Looking at my school (up to age 16)... My physics class was 70% female, all of whom did way better than me!


Looking around the LabVIEW community... The <5% are generally damned fine engineers. Engineers that have shown a real dedication to their work. In fact in my career I have never met a female engineer who was anything other than professional and enthusiastic (I can't say the same for the males, sorry chaps)


So where have they all gone, why did the 70% of my class go into something other than engineering?. 

I have 2 daughters of work age and if I was to sum up the societal pressure I have observed, it is that the push is towards caring and the humanities for girls and engineering is for boys. The shocker to me is that this societal pressure seems to come from females themselves. The UK the education system (< aged 16) is majority female led (70% of teachers were female in 2013). It's probably fair to say that in those formative years these teachers have great influence. More annoying for me was that engineering was for the "less-academic" kids, of which I was one. 


In the UK we have a National Health Service (contrary to what you hear in the US, the majority of us quite like it), for girls the caring profession is the aspiration of choice. I spoke to a lady software tester friend of mine and she was bemoaning the fact that she hadn't chosen a career in the caring professions rather than what she did.


I pointed out that her taxes were paying for these caring professionals in the hope that she saw the worth of the work she had done. A 40 year career paying taxes will pay for an awful lot of caring. This is a stark demonstration of the pressure that is applied.


I have never once felt that I should be looking after anything except my career.


What can we do to improve the situation, and does the situation need improving?

In the UK (and USA perhaps) the female engineering population is 9% (from a graduation percentage of 15%), in Spain and India it's 30%.


Why these differences?

This article is more question than answer I'm afraid, but my current loose theory is that there is a societal push away from practical engineering on our kids. Because doing engineering is more fun than teaching it, it tends to be under-represented in academia. Another clue is in comparing Spain/India with USA/UK perhaps there are just better opportunities available to girls who generally do better academically than boys.


It would be naive of me to say that sexism doesn't exist, I've witnessed plenty in certain industries. I've not seen as much in software. That said I'm unlikely to see it first hand as I'm not really the main recipient.


Maybe the key is to make engineering more appealing to everyone. Here's a crazy idea, pay your good engineers more and treat them well, you know, as well as you pay your managers, sales people and accountants.


As I've said before, some of my articles come from a sense of disquiet and this is one of them. Just so as you are forewarned I think any "ism" is a sign of limited brain capacity and desperate, sad insecurity. 


Equal amounts of love to everyone.









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There's also a strong bias for science-interested women to go into the Life Sciences, rather than the Physical Sciences.  Academic Life Science positions tend to pay very notably less that Physical Science ones, so higher pay is not the issue (or solution).

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That's a good argument, I notice when I work in chemical analysis type industries, there are a very high percentage of highly qualified chemists that are ladies too. My sample size is very small tho'

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Hi Steve,


This is going to be a somewhat long comment. Enjoy! 😉 


I grew up in Mexico city and I was always between two diametrical opposed forces: 

  1. You need to dumb down, you will never find a husband!
  2. Don't waste your talent, go on to be the best engineer or scientist you can be.

To the first one, I finally found the perfect answer when I moved to the US: "The odds of finding a husband in engineering are good, but the goods are odd!" 😉 Seriously though, I never cared much about finding a husband, I figured I could take care of myself. I still remember a debate in college, a guy studying Mechanical Engineering said: "picking a career for women is easy, they just need to find something that will keep them occupied while they find a husband" I wonder how I managed to not slap him in the face right there. I replied to him that if that was my only objective in life, I would have not picked such a complicated major. 


The societal pressures are there. My niece is 3 years old and she is already only getting cooking utensils and dolls as presents. Even her father said he was amazed at the level of indoctrination little girls go through at such a young age. I see that she loves trains and cars when she plays with her cousin, so those are my presents for her. I give construction or engineering oriented toys to my other nieces. I do not care if they chose to be an engineer or not, but I want to make sure that it is a choice and not a: "you cannot do that, because you are a woman". 


Last weekend, I had the honor of being a judge at the Austin FIRST Tech Challenge championship. I cannot lie, I paid extra attention to how many girls I saw involved in the teams and what were their roles. FIRST teams have to focus not only on their robot, but on their marketing, funding and reaching out to the community. Several years ago, when I started to get involved with FIRST, I saw a lot of the girls would focus on marketing and funding. Last weekend I saw a team that had female programmers and they knew their stuff. They could navigate through the code and explain all the concepts. I saw girls involved in building the robot, involved in the control. It is still not half girls, half boys, but there are a lot more girls involved in these competitions. The best part is that not everyone was so attentive to this fact, it was no longer a surprise to see a girl interested in engineering. I like to think that the perception is changing, that we are going to see more female engineers and scientists in the future.


Some of the kids assumed that I was not the technical judge and would talk to my male counterpart, one boy got very nervous when he realized he had been talking to the doctor in the group instead of the engineer in the judges group. I hope this was a good lesson for him not to make assumptions.


There are other challenges for the women who are already working in industry. I cannot talk about some of them, because I do not have kids. I can say that I have always spoken my mind (if you have seen me at NI Week or CLA Summits, you know it is so) and I try to be assertive. I want to make sure people know me for my technical knowledge and not because: Wow, she is a female engineer. 


Thanks for talking about this Steve and for not trying to "man-explain" the situation. I don't think we will find an answer to why this continues to happen, but we can brainstorm ideas to encourage more women to go into engineering and sciences. My contribution is to be the one to tell my nieces how smart they are, how capable they are, to encourage them. In the larger community, I can volunteer when there is a chance. Another organization I volunteer with is Nepris. It is great, I get to present in classrooms from all over the USA from the comfort of my office. I remember presenting to a group of kids, the girls were seating up front. Their teacher had warned me that they thought only men could be engineers. They were so happy to see a female engineer and even happier when I told them I had my own business. I hope they remember that and continue to pursue their dreams.




Get Going with G! at G Central GCentral
DQMH Lead Architect * DQMH Trusted Advisors DQMH Trusted Advisor * Certified LabVIEW Architect * Certified LabVIEW Embedded Developer * Certified Professional Instructor * LabVIEW Champion * Code Janitor

Have you been nice to future you?

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Thanks for your reply Fab, really appreciate the effort.


I'd have been heart-broken if someone thought I was man-splaining. I did get my eldest daughter to proof read it for me.


On the subject of following dreams, I have to admit I had no such dreams and was pushed into engineering by my parents. I wanted to be a comedian and as a comedian I make a good engineer I think. (I would have been a hopeless comedian so my parents were right btw!).


Thanks for posting this Steve. I think about this stuff a lot, as my kids are 6.5 (boy) and 4 (girl) as I type this.


The societal biases (I'm not going to call them pressures yet) on girls are astonishing. My wife (PhD. in a life science) and myself (M.S. in an engineering) try very hard all the time to give both kids the widest opportunities for interests and discovery that we possibly can. The girl wants trucks & cars, she wears shirts with trucks on them, she loves all the LEGOs that they both have, etc. She also likes colorful striped tights and sun dresses.


But you know what? A few weeks ago at breakfast she said to me, "When my brother grows up I think he will be a software engineer, but I'll just be a mommy." I asked her why she thought that and she said (to the effect of), "I think only boys can be software engineers." I was floored (and when I told Fab about it later I think she was ready to kill my wife and me 😉 ).


The point is that even at 4 years of age, with parents who would call themselves very progressive in regard to gender roles, she's already getting the message that Girls Are Mommies and Boys Are Engineers. And I have no real idea how to fight that. Continued vigilance, obviously. Supporting her individuality and her interests and her choices. Making sure she sees a wide variety of female role models. But man, is it ever looking like an uphill climb.


Having said that, though – my wife gave up her other job when we had kids. Her "job" now is running the family. And even as progressive people, we're both totally OK with that. It's what works for us and lets us (so far) have the kind of family life we both want. So maybe my daughter grows up, studies physics or engineering or whatever, pursues her other passions for dance or writing or LEGO building, and then drops it all to be a mommy. Is that inherently a bad thing?


I don't know yet :).



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For the record, I did not want to kill Justin nor his wife, I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help 🙂

Get Going with G! at G Central GCentral
DQMH Lead Architect * DQMH Trusted Advisors DQMH Trusted Advisor * Certified LabVIEW Architect * Certified LabVIEW Embedded Developer * Certified Professional Instructor * LabVIEW Champion * Code Janitor

Have you been nice to future you?

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"But you know what? A few weeks ago at breakfast she said to me, "When my brother grows up I think he will be a software engineer, but I'll just be a mommy." I asked her why she thought that and she said (to the effect of), "I think only boys can be software engineers." I was floored (and when I told Fab about it later I think she was ready to kill my wife and me Smiley Wink )."


It feels like a wall bearing down on you, doesn't it....


The frustration for me was that I was the peculiar, contrarian voice (even within my family). Your kids are now entering the point where they stop listening to you, and start listening to societies voice. This was a cause for a certain amount of fury for me!

The plus side is that as they get older you can train them about listening to societies voice too closely!


Oh before anyone says it! I know I'm a contrarian voice all the bloody time, but this time I'm right!

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Oh in a truly grown up world a parent (gender no specified) could give up their job to look after their kids, or maybe the healthiest situation is both parents work part-time. None of these should affect the career prospects either side of these decisions.


I think as we move into the future we may see the return of the commune, in the UK it probably the only way working class people will be able to afford a place to live!


It is indeed an interesting dilemma.  I think a good chunk of the bias starts at home.  


I come from a family of strong females, many who are highly educated.  Most of us have careers centered around math and science - I grew up being told our family was good at that stuff.  My mom encouraged me to major in engineering when she saw my fascination with the animatronics at Disney.  She said I should get an engineering degree first as it was a good basis for any career.  


Outside of work I spend a lot of time volunteering at my kids elementary school so I am somewhat privvy to what other kids are told at home - at least from their perspective.  Last year I was a math tutor for my son's second grade class.  The teacher recognized that math was not her strong point and she had a number of female students not doing well so she asked me to work with them.  One girl in particular comes to mind...she wouldn't even try to solve the problems so I started questioning her.  She said her mom told her she didn't need to worry about math/science and that "girls aren't any supposed to be good at that stuff."  I was shocked - I spent our next few sessions telling her about how I was always good at math and telling her about what I get to do at my job and how I couldn't do it without math.  I told her I thought she should be the first in her family to be good at it.  By the end of the year she was one of the top students in math and she's continued to do well this year - she's in my son's class again so I still see her.  🙂


I think a large part of the solution is to work with the younger kids.  By age five they've already made gender assumptions about many jobs, even beyond engineering.  Police officers and firefighters are all men.  Nurses and teachers are women.  I think some of this comes from parents but most from mainstream media - tv shows, movies, etc.   I did hour of code with all of the first grade classrooms at my kid's elementary.  When I asked if they knew any programmers or engineers the answer was inevitably "my dad, my uncle, my grandpa".  Most were shocked when I told them I was an engineer who also writes code.  


I LOVE the idea of both parents working part time.  I've been blessed to find employment that understands my dedication to my family.  Many women do give up careers or at least take time away when they start a family which puts them behind peers.  I "retired" for two years before I realized I couldn't cut it as a full time stay at home mom.  I personally think stay at home moms with engineering degrees are an under-utilized resource - many would love to work part time but most companies haven't quite figured out the best way to make that happen.  Maybe having more part-time engineering options would increase women in the field?


Becky Linton
LabVIEW Champion
Certified LabVIEW Architect
Senior Systems Engineer, Konrad Technologies
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Thanks for that Mrs L.

I totally agree, I wonder how many stay-at-home parents would also benefit from keeping their skills honed and confidence up.

One of the things I have noticed is how quickly confidence dissipates if it's not constantly challenged. Both my wife and mother found it very difficult to get back into the workplace after extended time bringing up the sprogs.


Proven Zealot

It's an interesting topic for sure. When I moved from Switzerland to the Netherlands some 20 years ago I was flabbergasted that in the ohh so progressive Netherlands, there were actually even less women who where persuing engineering degrees than in more conservative Switzerland, which by the way was and still is abysmal low too.

There is absolutely no objective reason that this would need to be like that. All through my basic and secondary school, girls were on average at least as good in math and other so called exact subjects then boys, so could have easily gone to pursue engineering degrees if they had chosen so. There certainly is a societal push about this though.

But from what I can see here, it does seem that in the US, they managed to change that substantially in the last 25 to 30 years or so. Initiatives like the FIRST robotic challenge seem to play part in this as they go very early into schools and introduce children to the idea of engineering and how that can be fun for both sexes alike. Another related thing might be immigration from countries like India with a traditionally higher percentage of females persuing engineering degrees.

As to a 4 year old, saying she wants to be mommy, it's of course indicative of the external influence society has early on through TV and also more contact with the outside world at that age, but at the same time I wouldn't put to much weight on that either. You have about 10 more years in which you can influence your child and try to make him or her more critical about what others think they should do. After all bringing up children is not so much about learning them to do what you think is right for them, but learning them to make their own decisions. If I had been choosing what I said at 4 I would want to be, I had been with the police, driving an electrical locomotive or maybe fighting fires now. At 10 I wanted to work for Lego and design new cool models for them, Smiley Happy. Sure all pretty male oriented jobs, but none of them did happen eventually. Smiley Very Happy

Rolf Kalbermatter
Averna BV
LabVIEW ArchitectLabVIEW ChampionLabVIEW Instructor
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Heh. Very good points and I completely concur on the influence we have, we concentrated on making pleasant, kind, polite people (hard to imagine looking at me!). I always tried to spark a bit of contrarian thinking in there too. I would hate to think that I had restricted their choices in any of this tho'.


I was convinced that animals could talk and therefore I wanted to be a zookeeper. I only knew I wanted to be an engineer after I had discovered software design. Luckily as an apprentice I could experience all the areas in a factory, so got experience in drawing, sales, system design, servicing, shop floor manufacturing and machining. I wonder how many people would get that experience nowadays (girl or boy).

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I just remembered that we talked about this at last year's CLA summit and an article I posted afterwards:


I'm not sure, though, wether the article promotes "luring" females into engineering by hiding the technical aspects behind societal meaningfulnes? 

An opportunity to learn from experienced developers / entrepreneurs (Fab and Steve amongst them):
DSH Pragmatic Software Development Workshop @ NIDays Europe in Munich on 22nd November
Knight of NI

Good discussion. None of my sons are in engineering either, so there's that. 😮


Not everybody wants to go into STEM, but for society to get 100% of the great minds for any particular field, 100% of the population must be in the potential pool and it should not depend on orthogonal parameters such as gender, sexual orientation, or heritage.


Yes, society still has certain biases, but movies like "Hidden Figures" can help to reduce it. Go see it!


I remember a story (a few years ago) about a daughter of farm workers here in California who really excelled at FIRST robotics (Don't have a link).


Then there is also this local story from last night. If you look at the facebook comments about this story, you still see some negative and dismissive comments that confirm that certain biases are still ingrained in society.


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I think this sentence sums my feelings up Christian totally, it strikes me as a huge waste of a rare resource! 


"Not everybody wants to go into STEM, but for society to get 100% of the great minds for any particular field, 100% of the population must be in the potential pool and it should not depend on orthogonal parameters such as gender, sexual orientation, or heritage."


Hi all,

We need to emphasize importance of freedom in learning and choosing profession no matter what the gender might be. Kids are modeled by their environment so as long as they parents are supportive of the kids decisions( a girl choosing an engineering field and a boy choosing to be a stay at home dad), these metrics are not important. We need to model the society based on the necessities (food, cleanliness, money management, resource management and engineering skills) and emphasize that both being a mommy(or a daddy) or an engineer is appreiciated.

I personally do not think that being a mommy(home maker) is not a bad goal but it needs to come with societal approval as an important job. And in my opinion it is. It is a culmination of all aspects of management and no less than an MBA.


BTW, I am female, a mom, an entreprenuer and a successful engineer and I feel that all these aspects are equally important.


Thanks for listening.


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Thanks for your comments Sonya, sorry I was a bit tardy responding. Lots of travelling at the mo'


"Kids are modeled by their environment so as long as they parents are supportive of the kids decisions( a girl choosing an engineering field and a boy choosing to be a stay at home dad), these metrics are not important."

This is the key sentence for me!

The experience I had with my kids is that society is very influential. Anyone who knows me will vouch that I'm not terribly conformist and yet the first lesson a kid learns at school is to conform.

One thing I'm pleased about is that my kids seem to be making their own path and they're much nicer people than me.


Male, Dad, Enthusiast about most things, Dog-lover and Engineer (not starving)