Why Texas needs more women in STEM

Four year-old Kathryn Mendoza of Iola, Texas, says she wants to be an engineer when she grows up. The job market in Texas needs her to stick with it.

If you ask someone outside of Texas to identify the state with the strongest high-tech job market, the answer would most likely be California or Massachusetts. But a new ranking by WalletHub has Texas at the top of the list with the best metro areas for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs. Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land and Austin-Round Rock ranked number one and two, respectively.   

This is great news for our state; however, we must continue to produce a qualified STEM workforce to meet the demand. And the demand is expected to increase over the next decade. The need for STEM professionals in engineering is particularly high with the Texas Workforce Commission projecting a 25 percent increase in the engineering job market by 2022.

The Texas population is growing rapidly and by 2025, there will be 80,000 more high school graduates per year for a total of 350,000 high school graduates annually in the state. The challenge will be to recruit more of these graduates into a career in engineering. 

To meet the need for an expanded engineering workforce, it is essential that we increase our recruitment of women. Currently, there are 245,000 engineers in the United States and only 14% are women (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Household Data, 2013 Annual Averages). In other critical professions such as medicine and law, the percentage of female students exceeds 45 percent. In comparison, the percentage of women graduating with an engineering degree remains less than 20 percent.

Public awareness of the need for more women in engineering has never been higher. However, the issue is more than just a disparity of numbers. The low number of women in engineering means we are lacking the perspective of half the population when creating high tech economic development opportunities.

Engineering relies on design creativity and diversity of perspective leads to better product development. Countless studies reveal men and women address challenges differently. If products are developed without the perspective of half of the consumer base, problems can arise. Consider early airbag technology in cars. Designed by a predominantly male group of engineers, the first generation of automotive airbags were designed for adult male bodies, resulting in product malfunction for women and children (Margolis & Fisher, 2002). Also, early voice recognition systems were calibrated to male voices, with poor results for women.

So why don’t more girls pursue careers in engineering?

A report recently published in Science states that “women are discouraged from entering a broad range of academic fields – from philosophy to physics – that are perceived as requiring an innate brilliance they are led to believe they don’t possess.” Other studies indicate that only the highest ability women are encouraged to apply to engineering colleges and men with a much wider range of academic ability are encouraged to do so (Holloway, Reed, Imbrie, and Reid. “Research Informed Policy Change: A Retrospective on Engineering Admissions", Journal of Engineering Education). For example, boys who like to tinker with cars or computers are often encouraged to be engineers no matter what their level of preparation (Education Week, Teaching Girls to Tinker, November 11, 2009, Lisa Damour).

To address this challenge, we must provide young girls with hands-on, learning-through-doing, opportunities such as the maker movement, where participants, or makers, take advantage of inexpensive, powerful, easy-to-use tools such as 3D printers, microcontrollers and laser cutters to create physical objects. A new study reports that making is already popular with tweens and teens in the United States, with girls and boys equally likely to be tech makers

Also, we must think more broadly about an engineering education. Often we discuss engineering only in terms of employment opportunities. However, many engineers choose to bypass traditional technology-focused jobs and move into management, business, medicine, law and education. In fact, engineering is considered by some to be the liberal arts program of the 21st century. The wide range of careers available to those with engineering degrees must be communicated to students at all levels. 

Given the wealth of opportunities available to engineers, it is critical that we recruit students with variety of talents. To only recruit students who excel in math as demonstrated by SAT scores into engineering is short-sighted. Many of our most successful engineering graduates did not achieve a 4.0 grade point average or score highly on standardized tests. Creative students with interests in the arts, music, and medicine also should be encouraged to consider to an engineering education. This is particularly important for recruitment of girls into our profession.

Many believe the key to encouraging more girls to pursue engineering is engagement with K-12 programs.  Development and distribution of engineering curricula for children beginning in elementary school is critical. Professional development programs for teachers and counselors in engineering education will be necessary as well

For Texas to continue as a high-tech economic leader in the nation, we must actively engage in programs developing a STEM workforce that better reflects our population. Our future depends on it.