What’s Driving Women Away from Engineering and Auto? – Why We Need Women Engineers

by Alexa C. Kurzius

What’s driving women away from engineering and auto?

Lauren Fix is known to most as The Car Coach. The auto industry vet went to work for her father’s brake company as a teenager, engineering a disc brake system for the 1965-1967 Ford Mustang. She’s been racing cars all her life (even during a pregnancy), and later owned and headed a driving school. Now she shares her expert advice on TV news stations like NBC, CNN, and Fox.

((Who is this Alexa, you ask? I’m a science writer who likes to write about women, cars, engineering education, and the three together at once. I began this article while earning my MA at NYU’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting program))

But even Fix can’t fix the gender biases that exist in her industry. Engineering has long failed to attract more women into the field, in part because of its mechanical and masculine reputation. The auto industry too embodies similar stereotypes, making the dearth of women engineers in auto an extreme example of where we’re lacking.

I met Fix and her daughter Shelby for a cup of coffee last spring. Back for a visit to my hometown of Buffalo, New York, I wanted to pick The Car Coach’s brain about what it’s like to be a woman engineer in the auto industry. Lauren I was expecting to see; Shelby was a bonus.

Cars are a big part of the Fix family, and Lauren has taught Shelby much of what she knows. As The Teen Car Coach, Shelby has written about cars for adolescents and made numerous TV appearances. Her name even embodies auto, as she’s named after Carroll Shelby, a racecar driver and designer of the Shelby Mustangs of the 1960s.

But for all of her knowledge on combustion engines and changing oil, this college student isn’t pursuing engineering. She’s studying advertising.

There’s nothing wrong with advertising of course. Rather, the far more interesting trend is that girls aren’t going into engineering or auto even when they have family backgrounds exposing them to it. Take me, for example. Cars drive though my genes. My father’s side of the family owned a GM franchise. My maternal grandfather was an engineer, and built bridges along the New York State Thruway. If anyone was poised for the engineering profession it was me, and I never choose to pursue it.

My story holds true across many engineering disciplines, though it’s particularly prominent in the world of auto engineering, which has long maintained a male stronghold.

Why aren’t we attracting more women into engineering? And what is it about the auto industry that drives women away?

Educational disparities, sociological pressures, and the auto industry’s reputation have stymied more women from entering into the field for a long time. Yet some women have pursued auto-engineering careers despite these circumstances, and serve as valuable inspiration for future females. So too does the work of industry advocates and researchers, who are looking to shift the gender breakdown.

This couldn’t come at a better time. With the energy, infrastructure, and technology demands of the future looming ahead, engineers more so than most professions are direly needed. The auto industry too has long been a large part of the U.S. economy, making the need for innovation in transportation exceptional.

Where we go from here is a function of how well we cultivate the science career aspirations of young girls, and how well we continue with career advancement for women already in the field.

What’s driving women away from engineering and auto?SEXPAND

“There’s not much of a long history” of women in engineering, says Matt Anderson, a curator at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The Society of Women Engineers wasn’t founded until 1950, when 65 women came together to form the femme-friendly trade organization. Despite the society’s efforts, along with others, to promote careers in the field, there’s still a persistent struggle today to bring women into these positions. That’s partly because there was never “a lot of women in the engineering field to begin with,” Anderson says.

I spoke with Anderson to see what kinds of books, or other publications, he had on hand about women engineers in the auto industry. The Henry Ford Museum boasts the auto industry’s largest archival library — millions of historical documents and books line the shelves — but he couldn’t find anything.

In 2010, Deloitte surveyed 100 female auto executives in the areas of engineering, supply chains, finance, and marketing. They produced a report suggesting how to recruit and retain women in these positions. It was “a big eye opener” for the auto companies, says Anderson.

While recruiting women into the auto industry has been slowly picking up speed — including General Motors just announcing their first female CEO, Mary Barra in December 2013 — the dearth of women engineers has been on the radar of academics and professionals for decades. By 1970, membership in the Society for Women Engineers had grown to 1,100, and they hosted their first conference related to women the following year. Women with bachelor’s degrees in engineering grew from less than 400 in 1970, to around 6,000 in 1980 and 10,000 in 1990.

Nadya Fouad, a counseling psychologist from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, has spent thirty years researching women and underrepresented minorities who choose nontraditional jobs in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math. “Engineering as a profession has been concerned about this for a long time,” she says. Without enough women in the field, you’re losing out on a valuable chunk of the workforce, and an important one when you consider the increased demand for trained professionals. Plus, adding women and underrepresented minorities to the mix creates a “diverse way of looking at problems,” she says.

In the 1990s, The National Academy of Engineering put together a committee to examine women in engineering. National numbers for women obtaining engineering degrees were flat lining to a rate of about 20% after growth experienced in the 70s and 80s.

“A lot of students — male and female — were choosing courses without thinking about how it could be detrimental to some of their career options in the future,” says Catherine Didion, a program officer at the Academy. These choices can stem all the way back to middle school, when children pick their first electives. According to Didion, other research has showed that students tend to lose interest in engineering when they did not have engineering in their pre-college program. I was in middle school in the 1990s. I remember taking math and science, but taking no sincere interest in either subject.

“The ability to attract young women is a significant challenged faced by the engineering community,” wrote Wm. A Wulf and E. Gail de Planque in their 1999 National Academy of Engineering editorial that accompanied the committee’s project. Aiming to raise awareness about the profession and encourage girls to major in engineering, the committee developed Engineer Girl, a website aimed specifically at middle school aged children.

“Most engineers in the past often had a family member who pointed them in that direction,” Didion tells me. Even with the influence of my family, I never chose auto engineering, though others did.

“The number one influence” in a child’s career path is usually a parent, says Didion at the National Academy of Engineering. Even with the influence of my family, I never chose auto engineering, though others did. Mary Barra, who received her bachelor’s in environmental engineering, went to work at GM’s Pontiac Motor Division, where her father worked for 39 years.

“I really love exploring new things,” says Jackeline Rios-Torres, an automotive engineering PhD student at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research. She works on hybrid and electric vehicle technology, developing strategies that can optimize a car’s energy efficiency.

One of only seven women in the PhD program, Rios-Torres is from Colombia, is in her early 30’s and chose the field because she “liked the subject even though I don’t have much experience with cars,” she says. Now, she believes her work “is going to contribute to some improvement to our environment and our society.” Although she really likes her research, auto engineering “is not an easy career.”

Intellectual difficulties aside — forty to fifty percent of engineering students drop out or switch majors —getting women to take up the challenge and stick with it isn’t easy either. The Clemson University master’s and PhD program is relatively new, and began in 2007 with 25 students.

Initially “there were no women in the program at all,” says Lee Davis, a student services coordinator with the program. Now, out of approximately 210 masters and PhD students, twelve are women. One woman, Ala Oattawi, was the first to receive a PhD in automotive engineering in 2012. “We have made some progress but we definitely have a long way to go,” Davis says.

What’s driving women away from engineering and auto?SEXPAND

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the America was a different place. We were just getting involved the Gulf War, we had only just started mapping the human genome, and the Internet wasn’t really yet a thing.

Yet the number of women studying engineering wasn’t really that different than it is today. Since 1991, women have earned around 20 percent of the total engineering bachelor’s awarded in the country, according to a 2013 National Science Foundation report. Similarly mentioned in the report, women earning computer science bachelor’s — another field where female presence has been notoriously low — was around 30 percent in 1990, declining to about 20 percent in 2010.

Despite this stagnancy, some women have chosen those careers anyway. “I always do my own thing and don’t really worry what other people think about it,” says Kara Gordon, an acoustic engineer at General Motors. She says that she never really thought about the fact that only around 20 percent of the students in her class were women.

Gordon studied mechanical engineering at Michigan State as an undergraduate in the mid 1990s and later in graduate school in the late 1990s. “My professors were 100 percent men,” she says. Surprisingly, it was an ex-boyfriend who perversely influenced her decision to pursue the field. “He told me that I wasn’t capable, so just to spite him I took a class” in introductory engineering, she says.

She didn’t exactly understand what engineers did, but once she started taking math and computer aided designed (CAD) classes, she found the field to be “really creative” and “really fascinating.” Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest forms of engineering, equipping students for careers in many industries, including auto.

With her degree Gordon went to work for GM, writing technical guidelines for how long it took cars to stop and break. She’s since moved onto GM’s sound lab, testing cars for their noise level. “What I basically do, in a nutshell,” she says, “is make your car quiet.”

Like Gordon, Ford engineer Rebecca Seiler studied mechanical engineering in Michigan in the 1990s and went to work for the auto industry thereafter. Ford “was a really good match for me,” she says, of her job she got after graduating from the University of Michigan. Men far outnumbered women in her work environment, she explained, which was very similar to her university days. I was “definitely a minority, when I was hired,” she says, and the years haven’t brought much change. “I’m still a minority.”

For a time, Seiler worked in the research department at Ford, and was the sole women out of 30 people. Now there are three women in her current department at the engineering testing facility, but that’s far from an “overwhelming majority,” she jokes.

Seiler helps develop collision avoidance technology, under a larger umbrella that Ford terms “active safety.” Systems like these use radar mounted on the front of the car to detect potential collisions, warning the driver and assisting the driver with braking, if necessary.

There’s a misconception, Seiler says, that if you are an auto engineer, you found your calling “with your Dad in the garage fixing his Mustang when you were ten years old,” she says. But Seiler certainly didn’t experience that, and instead, chose her career based on her curiosity for new things and ability to problem solve.

“I went into engineering in the first place not because I was the best student in math or science,” she says, “or that I tinkering with my dad in the garage.” It was because she wanted to discover new things and develop ways to “to make the world better for others,” she says.

Even though Elizabeth Baron majored in computer science, her experience as an undergrad and later in the auto industry ran parallel to the experiences of Gordon and Seiler. The head of Ford’s virtual reality lab studied computer science and programming at Eastern Michigan University in late 1980s. A love of math and computer programming led her to the major, but even over 20 years later, “I can remember the women that were students with me,” she says. “It was a small group.”

Ford was an obvious choice for Baron after graduation, as she came from a family of Ford employees. Her father worked the assembly line, her uncle was an engineer, and her brother paints cars.

In the late 1990s, Ford was transitioning from writing its own computer code for virtual reality systems to buying software and hardware that provided additional functioning. Baron approached her boss and explained why she thought she should be the technical specialist for the virtual reality lab as it was growing. The job she has today didn’t exist before she came along, she says. But it didn’t just happen for her. Baron paid her dues by proving her worth through a fair share of less interesting but foundational jobs, she says.

Today, her lab uses a video game-like system to see how cars act in situations that are too expensive to test in the real world. Her enthusiasm for her job rubs off on all of those around her, including her two daughters. Both have interests in STEM careers: Baron’s oldest daughter is an accounting major in college and her younger, middle school aged daughter wants to become an engineer.

“My advice to young women is to always be true to who you are,” she says. Men and women address complex problems differently, she says. “It’s not wrong,” she says, “it’s just different.”

Collectively, these women have chosen careers as engineers and computer scientists in the auto industry. Gordon creates and buffers the sound you experience while driving a car. Seiler helps avoid your car from crashing. Baron uses the virtual world to protect us while driving in the real world. They love their jobs and advocate for more women to enter into the auto industry. Yet too few women still pursue those careers. Why?

Engineering for the auto industry faces a hurdle in attracting young women that other fields of engineering do not: for many young women—and many young men, too—auto engineering just isn’t sexy enough. Young people “liken the auto industry to their grandfather’s Buick,” says Andrew Smart, an industry relations and business director at SAE International, the auto industry’s largest trade organization. They seem to think of “engineers with very oily fingers” working in a facility that’s “dingy and dirty,” he says.

In her generation, says Susan Brennan, “if you got a job in automotive it was considered the best job out there.” The Nissan manufacturing executive who launched the company’s first electric car, the LEAF, entered the industry in the late 1970’s after a brief stint as a cancer researcher.

“There was noise, there was energy, there was excitement,” she said in a 2010 Automotive News article about her first experiences while working at a seat supplier for the Chrysler minivan.

What’s driving women away from engineering and auto?SEXPAND

That greasy, noisy stereotype doesn’t exist in, say, chemical engineering. Most engineering concentrations are heavily dominated by men, though “that’s not quite true” in chemical engineering, says Andrea Eisenberg, an academic advisor in engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. According to a 2010 report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) on why there are so few women in STEM careers, about a third of chemical engineering bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women in 2007. This statistic far outweighs other majors like electrical engineering or mechanical engineering, where women earned around 11 percent of each of those degrees.

Catherine Didion, at the National Academy of Engineering, thinks the higher rates of women in chemical engineering has a lot to do with the exposure to chemistry coursework in high school. She’s also noticed a clearer overall understanding of the career applications of a chemical engineering degree, such as the health and medical field. Conversely, electrical or mechanical engineering lack these explicit and well-understood applications, she says.

Elisa Toulson, a young engineering professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, chose chemical engineering as an undergrad at the University of California at San Diego. When she finished her bachelor’s about ten years ago, about half of her class were women. “I think a lot of female students are interested in chemistry,” which is why women choose that major over other disciplines, she said.

Toulson teaches combustion, a subject that is not often taught at the undergraduate level though it’s particularly relevant to automotive engineering for its use in gas-powered combustion engines. She has noticed that among students who take her class, the subject holds a distinctly different appeal for the men than for the women: the men tend to be interested in combustion as it relates to cars, whereas the few women tend to chose combustion because of their environmental interests, as emissions from combustion engines are factor to consider in environmental engineering.

Despite the rather promising ratio of female to male undergraduate chemical engineers, the statistics for women in the work world are underwhelming. Around 13 percent of employed professional chemical engineers are women — a bigger share than in most engineering concentrations. By comparison, only about seven percent of working electrical engineers and mechanical engineers are women.

While those stats include working professionals across many generations, fewer real-world women engineers compared to college majors begs the question — what do women do with their degree after they obtain it?

Nadya Fouad tackled this question with her colleague Romila Singh in a 2012 study funded by the National Science Foundation on why women leave engineering. Using online surveys, the researchers asked around 5,300 female alumni from 216 universities on their experiences as engineering undergraduates and as working professionals.

“It surprised us that 15 percent did not enter the field at all,” she says of the women with engineering bachelors who completed the survey. Even more women left after working in the field, with 27 percent of survey respondents leaving engineering, often for other industries. While many in that group used their engineering bachelors to pursue other areas in science, like medicine for example, Fouad thinks it’s a “complex set of reasons” that determined these women’s choices.

Some of it has to do with workplace environment. “It’s difficult to be the only person, the only minority, the only woman in a very traditionally male occupation,” she says. The engineering field is “pretty heavily occupied by white men,” she says, and the networking opportunities are thusly different.

About ten years ago Lori Gaitman was an industrial engineer, and left her engineering consulting job to pursue a career in the nonprofit industry. As the director of the SAE Foundation, the charitable arm of SAE International, she moved away from making recommendation on workplace efficiency to a career that’s more personally fulfilling. While she continues to work with other engineers frequently in her present job, she doesn’t really miss her former field.

When it comes to addressing the trends in the workplace, Fouad suggests that it might be an issue of workplace accountability. Offering clear paths for promotion and advancement might encourage women to start or continue in the field. When women who study engineering as undergraduates then leave the field later on, it’s a waste of STEM efforts and funding. “We’ve done all this work to get women to go into engineering and they don’t stay in engineering,” says Fouad.

What’s driving women away from engineering and auto?SEXPAND

Jackeline Rios-Torres talks a lot about role models. Though she’s busy finishing up her PhD at Clemson in automotive engineering, she makes time to help new females that enter into her program. She also volunteers at the Southern Automotive Women’s Forum— an organization co-founded by Susan Brennan at Nissan to promote women in the auto industry — and plans to return to her alma mater in Colombia, Universidad del Valle, to run an engineering seminar for collegiate women in Cali. Rios-Torres cares a lot about career role models, maybe because growing up she never had one.

The best way to attract more women into auto engineering, she says, is to have females already in the profession “encourage more women to come in and show them that we can do it.” Men have long dominated the auto industry, and it’s “difficult to fight that perception,” she says.

Engineer Girl centers around that type of encouragement. The National Academy of Engineering’s female-focused website gets 25,000 unique visitors a month, and uses working industry professionals to answer questions submitted by young girls. In November 2013, an engineering student from Ireland asked why there are so few women in the field. The responding engineer encouraged the student to draw on her own experiences, and pointed her to other writing on why there’s a dearth of women in the field.

Maybe the question then shouldn’t be why aren’t there more women in engineering, but rather, are women pursuing careers that they love?

Unquestionably, the amount of women pursuing engineering majors has increased in the past 50 years. From less than 1% in 1968, to around 15% in 1998, and 18% in 2008, women earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering has gone from a few hundred to almost 14,000.

And yes, while those numbers aren’t increasing as fast as maybe some STEM advocates would like, the expanding role of women in the field demonstrates a slow but steady cultural shift.

“What we need to do is engage the female audience at an earlier age,” so they know STEM careers are an option for them, says Chris Cuica, program director for the engineering education initiatives supported by the SAE Foundation. Funded by SAE International, the auto industry’s leading trade organization, and with a majority of its donors from the auto industry, the program has been developing engineering-specific lessons for children in elementary school, middle school, high school, and beyond for over 20 years. Though the program doesn’t target girls directly, it uses the classroom setting to stir up interest in all students, and that could help to raise the number of women in engineering in absolute terms.

Kelly Fitzgerald is one of those girls. She and three other females won SAE International’s F1 in Schools contest in 2012, competing as one of only two all-girl teams at the world competition. The high school sophomore credits her middle school science teacher for forming the team and sticking with them after the project went from an in-school activity to an after-school project.

Using Computer Aided Design (CAD) software, the girls designed and raced a forearm-sized miniature car made out of balsa wood. Racing against other teams from around the country, they won the national competition, which granted them a trip to the international competition in Abu Dhabi, and a burgeoning interest in science. All four girls are interested in science, and want to pursue the field after graduation. Yet only one team member, Anna Awald, wants to pursue auto engineering.

There is that stigma that girls don’t belong in auto engineering, says Stephanie Borchelt, a recent graduate of Indiana University-Perdue University at Indianapolis bachelor’s degree in motorsports engineering. The relatively new program formed in 2007 to train students to be engineers for races like the Indianapolis 500.

The only woman to graduate with a motorsports degree in her class, Borchelt was exposed to the engineering field by her parents and stepparents, as three out the four of them are engineers in Indiana. For Borchelt, Indiana program was a “perfect fit” for its blend of math, science, and motorsports. And since graduation, she’s been putting her studies into practice as one of two female motorsports engineers at Penske, a prominent NASCAR race team in Charlotte, North Carolina. You “have to be such a strong person to make it in our field,” she says, and she thinks the women that dropped out of her program did so because they got frustrated.

Working engineers, male or female, understand the difficulties of engineering. Many, like Rios-Torres and others, are using their position to positively promote the profession. Jason Nicholas, a materials science professor at Michigan State, created a Saturday Girl Scout Demo Day at the university in January 2013, as a way to “to get to word out about how much fun science can be,” he said in an email.

Encouraging young girls to pursue careers involving science and math “is an initiative that needs some attention,” he says. When Elisa Toulson, an engineering professor at MSU, heard about the program she volunteered herself, she says.

Using his own Eagle Scout experience as inspiration, Nicholas worked with the MSU chapters of the Society of Women Engineers, Graduate Women in Science, and Women and Minorities in the Physical Sciences (WaMPS). Based on the other groups’ experience, Nicholas and his faculty developed science experiments that would appeal to young girls. Troops moved from station to station, learning about slow motion photography, electron microscopes, and how to make their own lip-gloss. Around 50 people came last year, and Nicholas hopes to double attendance for his 2014 February Saturday workshop.

Early experiences in science helped steer most of the women I spoke with into engineering, whether it was through their parents, their school, or in science-immersion programs like summer camp. Toulson, an MSU engineering professor, watched her mother pursue a biotechnology career where she was a minority in the field. Kelly Fitzgerald, winner of the SAE International competition, had the push of an interested teacher. And Rebecca Seiler, an active safety engineer at Ford, recalls an experience at space camp kindling her interest in science.

Even though the engineering and auto industry has a very long history with few females, these initiatives are the very thing that are currently and will finally put women in the driver’s seat. Perhaps there will never be an equal gender divide in engineering or in the auto industry, just as PR and publishing tend to employ mostly women.

What we do in the meantime makes all the difference. In November 2013, the Obama administration announced a new STEM grant partnership between the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Education. Aiming to make students more employable in STEM careers down the line, grants are funded to educational programs with career-focused curriculums. The $100 million domestic push uses revenue from the H-1B or work visas for foreign employees.

Throughout my research, what I noticed most was how comforting the community is. Small but strong, the women and men I spoke with were candid, can-do, and encouraging. They shared stories, colleagues, and a love for what they do. They were forward-thinking and ready for more (women).

“There’s such a diversity of opportunity,” in engineering and in auto, says Susan Brennan, Nissan manufacturing executive. “I hope the next generation takes advantage of it.”

[Image credit: Lauren Fix] [Image credit: The Advertising Archives] [Image credit: Rebecca Seiler] [Image credit: Library of Congress] [Image credit: Team Shift/The New York Times]

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