November 30, 2010 AT 9:31 am

Women in Engineering – The Numbers

I’ve been looking at some interesting data from the NSF regarding women in engineering. Here’s what I found:

Data from Table C-4, NSF Statistics on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering

Between 2000 and 2008, the total number of 4-year engineering degrees awarded in the US increased from 59,497 to 69,895. Of the over 10,000 additional degrees, very nearly all of them went to male students. While the number of degrees awarded to females remained constant at around 12,500, those awarded to males increased by about 1,200 per year; from 47,281 in 2000 to 57,977 in 2008. This increase in turn reduced the percentage of women receiving engineering degrees by about 2 percent, from 20.5% to 18.5%.

Data from Table C-4, NSF Statistics on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering

At the same time, the ratio of women to men who were awarded 4-year degrees in all fields remained largely the same (3:2).

Women receiving graduate engineering degrees, on the other hand, increased by about 2,300 over the same period (from 20.5 to 22.5).

Data from Tables E-1, E-5 and E-6, NSF Statistics on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering

But while “engineering” is typically considered in an academic context, at least as far as credentials are concerned, there are other areas that should not be ignored. The open hardware community, for example, represents a less established, but nonetheless valid, arena for similar talents to flourish. Consider the Open Hardware Summit. In contrast to the percentages stated above, of the individual speakers at the Summit, over 30% (4 out of 13) were women. Further, it should be noted that the conference itself was organized by two women, with about  23% of attendees being female. Granted, this cannot be considered a direct comparison, but it is still interesting.

I am very curious as to why the number of women pursuing engineering degrees has effectively stayed the same, while the number of women attending college grows by about 20,000 each year. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that engineering as a profession, and technical professions in general, have become less stigmatized as exclusively male. So it’s a bit discouraging to see that the number of women pursuing a career in this field has basically stagnated. And I am at a loss to explain why.

What do you think?

Many thanks to Alica Gibb for providing attendance data from the Open Hardware Summit.

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  1. I can tell you the answer, but you won’t like it…it has to do with the most taboo of all subjects in our age: the distribution of intelligence and sex.

    Put simply, the curve for males is broader and flatter than women. The midpoint is the same, but distribution at the high and low end is greater for males than females. Thus you end up with both more engineers and more prison inmates as males.

    The minimum intelligence required to be an effective engineer lies to the right of the midpoint. The minimum intelligence required to get a degree of any sort is also the right of the midpoint, but less so, so you can get an increasing number of women going to college, but with only a small portion falling in that portion of the curve to the right of the cutoff point for engineering.

    Males predominate in the extreme ranges for the distribution of intelligence. If you meet a genius, he’s probably male. If you meet a moron, he’s probably male.

  2. Honestly, I doubt Chris’ answer. I’ve yet to see convincing evidence of such. (If anyone has seen any reputable studies though, I’d be curious to see)

    If I had to guess why this is the case, I’d guess it’s quite simply due to cultural conditioning. Things are simply going backwards as far as what people are being encouraged to do from an early age. Perhaps increasing the quality of science/technology education in schools would be a good way to improve this? The less emphasis there is on something in the educational scene, the less hope there is of de-stigmatizing it.

  3. I’d definately need to see some concrete numbers on the distribution of ‘intelligence’ by gender, though that in itself is a loaded term. You can be mathematically gifted and useless at solving abstract problems, etc. What are you measuring with those curves? Even accepting that there is a different in the distribution of intelligence, the logical question is why? Is it something sociological or genetic? Being married to a lawyer and director for a pharmaceutical company, I’m hardly prone to believe my wife is genetically pre-disposed to mediocrity. My guess is that it has far more to do with the environment you were brought up in than something as simplistic as X versus Y.

    Personally, of the smartest 5 people I know, 3 of them are women.

  4. @Chris: your math is wrong, sorry! My friend Terri has a great presentation debunking this particular (tired, old) argument here. Yes it’s for CS, but the argument is the same for Engineering.

  5. Chris’s math is not completely wrong, but it’s close – it doesn’t explain the amount of difference. My friend Terri has a great presentation debunking this (tired, old) argument around women in STEM fields here; her presentation is specific to CS but the same math applies to engineering as well.

  6. @Leigh: Nice link there. I’d say that debunks intelligence-related claims well.

    One thought is… even if a biological disposition explained the gap (which it doesn’t), it wouldn’t explain such a worsening trends, since such changes happen on a longer time scale. I think the worsening trend is the most worrying part of this… quite worrying really.

  7. Oh, and don’t mean to comment too much, but I think this is very relevant. It’s CS, not engineering, but same point for the most part:

    Take a listen to the section “Computer Science: Where Are All The Ladies?” on

    I would say that interview gives a good perspective that’s very relevant overall.

  8. I concur, more women engineers are needed. However, I’ll admit that I’m mostly leaving a comment so I can try my hand at the nifty resistor-matching game below.

  9. I concur, more women engineers are needed. However, I’ll admit that I’m mostly leaving a comment so I can try my hand at the nifty resistor-matching game below.

  10. I would hypothesize gender roles has a lot to do with this. I think the type of play, toys/video games lead a lot of boys into engineering.

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