While women have made gains in many other professions, they are still quite under-represented in engineering and computing. Jane Prey of the IEEE Computer Society Board of Governors is working to change that. As a member of the group’s Educational Activities Board and Membership and Outreach Board, she works to promote awareness of the profession and encourage girls and young women to pursue computing and engineering careers.

“We have no computing or real engineering in K through 12 education,” she said. “It’s starting to come around now and people are realizing that now. They have no understanding of what it could be. So how would they know that they should major in it in college?”

According to the American Society for Engineering Education, only 15,272 or 18.4% of the 83,001 engineering bachelor’s degrees earned in 2011 were awarded to women. At the graduate level, women earned 22.6% of the master’s degrees and 21.8% of the doctoral degrees in engineering in 2011.1 Prey hopes to improve those percentages.

“We never relate engineering to real life that they’re already doing to show them that engineering’s not this boring thing. It’s not this dull thing. It’s something that you’ve already thought about. Engineering’s about solving complicated problems,” she said. “How do you take it apart, and how do you put it together?”

The Computer Society strives to make those connections between students’ lives and engineering. Its outreach includes support for educational programs in computing at all levels, such as the annual Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing, sponsored by the Anita Borg Institute.

“You get something like 4000 technical women under one roof. It’s really pretty amazing,” Prey said. “And what happens there is they tend to focus on undergraduate and graduate students of all computing and engineering disciplines, and so it has also become very popular with industry because it’s a great place to find women who are potentially your interns and your employees.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 3,816,000 professionals in “computer and mathematical occupations,” including 976,896 (or 25.6%) women.2 The IEEE Computer Society reports that women comprise 7% of its membership. And, only 2.3% of the nearly 3000 engineers who responded to the 2012 Electronic Design Reader Survey were female.

“They’ve been brought up to be more service-oriented,” Prey said. “Medical schools now are almost 60% women because they believe in service, believe in doing something that has impact.”

Part of the solution, Prey believes, lies in overcoming traditional gender stereotypes about the profession. In fact, the IEEE Computer Society is working to reach out to a broader base of women who already are technically minded and raise the awareness in its own constituency—among its men and women alike.

“We need to make more men want more women to do this,” she said. “So part of that is working with our own community to help them spread the word in a good way why being an engineer is very cool, why computing is a real great discipline to be in.”

The IEEE Computer Society has partnered with the National Center for Women & Information Technology (ncwit.org) to spread this message. NCWIT’s resources include kits and reports outlining key practices for assisting women who are already in the industry as well as for recruiting and retaining female students at all grade levels.

“You have to work all along the pipeline. There’s no such thing as a one-time intervention that’s going to work,” Prey said. “What you do in third grade is going to be very different than what you would want to do in eighth grade. But it needs to be there. It needs to be something.”

Prey believes that the foundation is there, though, for making those connections between students’ lives and the engineering profession. And it all begins with the right mindset. 

“Facts, anybody can learn. It’s how you apply those facts and how you can solve problems. That’s hard to teach,” she said. “Solving a problem is a lot of experience and the opportunity to think out of the box. And so we have to teach kids how to think.”

Several years ago, she attended a talk sponsored by the Department of Education. A group from the Singapore government was there as well. Singapore is known for its educational achievements in math and engineering, she said, but its representatives were there to learn from the United States about teaching creativity.

“How do you enhance creativity and free-thinking in your classroom? They were concerned because their kids are really good at learning how to do math, doing calculus,” she said. “It’s not just about learning the facts. It’s about learning how you apply them, and when you apply them, and where you apply them. And that’s the hard part to teach.”

New technologies also will play a greater role in education, helping to develop these critical thinking skills and making the connections between engineering and everyday life. As part of Microsoft Research, Prey led the Tablet Technologies in Higher Education initiative, taking early notice of the vital role that tablets could play in education. Virginia Tech, where she was a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board, is an all-tablet engineering school.

“When you walk in the door, the tablet is handed to you as part of your entrance welcome bag. And they use it in the classroom, and their faculty has embraced it to the point where they’ve redone their course assignments, their classroom presentations, and whatever to try to leverage the technology to help students learn better, easier, faster,” she said.

There’s still room for improvement in reaching younger female students, though. For example, the College Board reports that only 4157 of the 22,176 students who took the 2011 Advanced Placement Computer Science exam were female.3 Prey believes that opportunities are out there for young women and that they should be encouraged to follow them.

“At Microsoft, there are probably 3000 or 4000 developer jobs right now in Seattle that they can’t fill because they can’t find qualified people,” Prey said, and she knows from experience, as she was part of the team that developed Microsoft Research’s Gender Diversity and Pipeline Strategy as well. “It’s not that there aren’t people applying for jobs. It’s that they aren’t at a level that we need them to be at in order to have them do work.”

By encouraging more young women to pursue engineering, Prey says, we add both depth and quality to that pool of talent, improving engineering and society alike. But before that can happen, we need to encourage their curiosity and support them as they explore the field.

“We need to teach them early on that learning never stops,” Prey said, “that the most interesting part of your job is the thing that you don’t know yet.”

References

1. “Engineering by the Numbers,” Brian L. Yoder, PhD, http://www.asee.org/papers-and-publications/publications/college-profiles/2011-profile-engineering-statistics.pdf

2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.pdf

3. The College Board, http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/research/AP-Program-Summary-Report-2011.pdf

Jane Prey is a member of the IEEE Computer Society Board of Governors. She also is a member of the group’s Educational Activities Board and Membership and Outreach Board. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and holds a PhD from the University of Virginia. She was a faculty member in the Computer Science Department at the University of Virginia before going to Microsoft Research. Currently, she is at the National Science Foundation, on loan from  the Atlas Institute at the University of Colorado.