Gretchen Ivy, senior project manager at HNTB in Kansas City, Mo., has done engineering work on many bridges. She had uncles who were engineers that served as her role models growing up.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Thirty years after the first wave of women began pursuing engineering careers, it's still mostly a man's world -- despite an earnest effort to encourage girls to pursue a profession with good opportunities.
Take Taya Upkes, who graduated summa cum laude in May with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She had nine job offers before receiving her diploma and accepted an offer from Cummins to work at its plant in suburban Minneapolis.
Her starting salary? Somewhere in the "mid-60s." And Cummins also is paying her graduate school tuition. She helps design generator sets for yachts, she said, and she's the only woman working in a department of 15 or 20.
"I actually enjoy it," she said. "It was intimidating at first, but I got used to it."
Engineering schools around the region report Upkes isn't alone.
"The demand for engineers in general is high," said Gary Mirka, an associate dean at Iowa State University. "Ninety-five percent of our students have jobs within six months, and recruiters are keen on women."
Despite those opportunities, the enrollment at Iowa State reflects a nationwide pattern. The share of women in its undergraduate engineering program peaked at 16.5 percent in 1995. This year, 15.2 percent of the engineering students are female.
Nationally, 17.9 percent of undergraduate engineering students were women in 2009, according to the most recent data from the National Science Foundation. Ten years before, 19.8 percent of engineering students were female.
And even when a woman obtains a degree in engineering, it's no guarantee she'll enter or stay in the profession.
The foundation reported that 12.9 percent of the almost 1.6 million engineers in the nation were women in 2008, significantly lower than the graduation rate.
Betty Shanahan, the executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, said a study last year called "Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering" found one-third of female engineering graduates didn't enter the profession because they thought the workplace culture was inflexible and not supportive of women.
The report also found nearly half of the female engineers who left the profession did so because of poor working conditions, too much travel and lack of advancement or low salary. It also found one in four women who left the profession did so to spend more time with their family.
"When women leave a company, they leave the profession," Shanahan said. "When men leave a company, it's generally to go to another company."
As for the continuing low number of women going to engineering school, Shanahan and others said one of the bigger reasons capable girls didn't choose the profession was their impression that engineers generally were loners working on abstract projects that didn't directly help people.
"Girls don't see the opportunities in engineering as opposed to other fields where you can see how you make a contribution," Shanahan said. "The stereotype is you work alone and the social relevance isn't understood."
The subtle messages sometimes conveyed by teachers and parents that engineering is a man's world also helps continue that pattern, she added.
"It is a male-dominated field, and those implicit biases are often carried over," Shanahan said.
Upkes, who graduated from high school in Sioux Falls, S.D., and attended UM-Kansas City on a softball scholarship, remembers the reaction she often got when people learned about her degree.
Every time she said she was in engineering "and people said, 'OK, that's weird,' it got ingrained in my mind," she said.
In all her mechanical engineering classes, there was only one other female.
"Everybody noticed it, but after a while, when they knew you could do the work, people could accept it."
Laura Loyacono, director of the KC STEM Alliance, a Kansas City program that encourages students, both boys and girls, to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and medicine, said the perception that engineering is for boys remains a big deterrent.
Her organization has been working to change that attitude since it started a year ago.
"One of the things we're finding is exposure earlier, when students are younger and offered an introduction in a non-threatening fashion," Loyacono said. "Middle school is ideal."
She agreed with Shanahan's observation that in high school, sometimes educators convey subtle messages to girls that deter their interest in engineering; for example by asking whether a bright student really wants to take a difficult math class.
Gretchen Ivy, a senior project manager at HNTB in Kansas City, had several uncles who were engineers that served as her role models growing up.
Ivy eventually got her bachelor's degree in civil engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1998. Compared with her friends majoring in other fields, Ivy found her opportunities were fairly good.
"I had a job four months before I graduated," she said.
Karen Stelling, an engineer at Burns & McDonnell since 1987, is actively engaged in both mentoring fellow female professionals and recruiting girls to pursue engineering. She is co-chair of "Project Lead the Way," which is developing educational materials for middle- and high school students.
"One of the things that come out in studies is that girls and women want to have a sense of helping people. That's why medicine is a popular choice," she said.
"We need to show girls how engineering helps people."
Some of the more popular fields for women include environmental, bio-medical, chemical, material science and systems engineering.
"Engineers do make a difference in the world and are critical in matters of energy, the environment and health," Schrader said.Tweet