The Engineering Problem and How Women are the Answer

A big topic of worry right now in the US is the outsourcing of jobs. A lot of people are wondering how we as Americans can be competitive when wages in so many other parts of the world are so low. Now while this is open to debate, I believe that in order to stay competitive in the 21st century, America has to lead the way in technology and innovation; we have to lead the world in new ideas.

The advent of globalization and low wage jobs abroad means that the only way we can compete is by being ahead of the bell curve when it comes to technology. But if we are to lead the way in technology and innovation, we need our students to enter fields like engineering and science. Unfortunately, the percentage of students going into science and technology is on the decline in the US1, which is very bad news.

Why is this bad news? Because without the proper training, American students will not have the tools to create the things we dream up. Degrees in engineering and science are the tools American students will need if they hope to be leaders in technology.

Ok, so we have a problem, but how do we fix it?

How do we convince American students to go into science and engineering? The key to this riddle, in my opinion, is women.  Studies have shown that women have a huge influence on the education of their children (both boys and girls)2.  If more women go into engineering, then more of their children will be exposed to engineering, and it becomes a positive feedback cycle.  Already in the US, the fields of law and medicine, which were historically male dominated fields, have a higher application rate among women than men3.  This suggests that just because science and technology have traditionally been male dominated fields, this can change.

But how do we go about convincing the next generation of women to enter engineering and science?

I think the trick here is to redesign science and engineering curriculum and the tools used in these fields, such as calculators, computers, or microscopes, to appeal to women.

An example of how this can be effective can be seen in urban biking in the US versus Europe4. Bike infrastructure in Europe was designed to address women’s innate risk aversion; instead of sharing the roads with automobiles many bike lanes in Europe have their own dedicated lanes, completely separated from automotive traffic. In addition, unlike many dedicated bike lanes in the US that simply run through parks or along river promenades, the bike lanes in Europe were designed to access useful parts of the city, such as local shopping centers, thus making biking practical as a means of running errands.

By examining the gender disparity in urban biking between the US and Europe, it is possible to see the effects of designing bicycle infrastructure for women and how that affects overall bicycle usage. In the US urban biking is 66:33, male to female. At the same time the overall percentage of urban biking in the US is 2%, compared to 12% in Germany where the gender disparity is 51:49, male to female, and 27% in Netherlands, where the disparity is actually in the other direction 45:55, male to female. From this it can be surmised that by making it more appealing for women to ride bicycles you actually increase the overall number of bikers.

I believe the same can be true for women in engineering, and the overall number of Americans going into engineering.

How do we redesign tools and curriculum that are more appealing to women?

I think the first step in addressing how to make the tools and curriculum for science and technology more appealing to women is to bring women into the design process. For example, using sports in a physics textbook to describe a physical phenomenon (such as a baseball flying through the air under the influence of gravity) implies that you are familiar with baseball, a male dominated sport.

Another area of possible improvement is in the redesign of the tools we use, such as graphing calculators. If a woman were to design a calculator, would it still look like what we envision a calculator to look like? Screen on top, keys on bottom, basic 3 x 3 number pad? I don’t know the answer to this question, but we need to at least reexamine the possibility that the tools we use in science and technology have historically been designed for men, which might be radically different from how women would want to use them.

I think it would be very interesting to put together a team of designers and educators- half female, half male- and tell them to create from scratch a science and technology curriculum including the tools needed, from microscopes to software, and see what the final result would is. I bet it will be drastically different from what we currently have in our schools today.

Design matters, and I think the first step to making science and engineering appealing to women is to re-examine how science and engineering is presented in school from a design aesthetic. This in turn will lead to more women going into science and engineering, which will hopefully result in more Americans in general going into science and engineering, which is the key to America remaining a leader in technology and innovation as we go forward in the 21st century.

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