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Supporting Women in Engineering

We all know that women are not only a minority in technical fields, but are often not encouraged to go into such fields. Here are a few ways to encourage and support the girls/women in our lives who are interested in technical fields.

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A while ago we did a post on the Barbie Computer Engineer book. We had a lot of mixed feedback, but one thing that really caught my attention was the comment that we just stated a problem -- we didn't try to fix it. We didn't give feedback or suggestions. Basically we didn't give any feedback for girls or women in engineering and finding a way to encourage them, so I wanted to do a post doing just that.

Open source Barbie

Sparkfun's version of "Open Source Barbie"

Almost exactly 14 years ago I graduated from the University of Michigan with an Electrical Engineering degree. I was lucky in a lot of ways. When I started I was in a residential program titled "Women in Science and Engineering". We basically took up a whole floor of one of the dorms and so my roommates, mentors, RAs and everyone down the hall was basically either in Engineering or Pre-Med. From the beginning I was surrounded by and supported by women in engineering. Later on I also became involved in the school's Society of Women Engineers chapter. Again I found a way to surround myself with women engineers. Don't get me wrong, I still spent all day in classes surrounded by mostly male engineers, and evenings in the computer labs surrounded by more male engineers, but I also had quite a few female friends in engineering. While I might have been outnumbered I was not alone.

My college years

Me and some friends from Wise and SWE in college.

Today I see not only organizations like SWE and Wise in colleges, but also organizations targeting girls younger and younger. There are now organizations and websites like Engineer Girl and Girls Who Code providing ways to expose girls to engineering. One of the comments on our Barbie post mentions that girls are not actively being discouraged from entering technical fields. That got me thinking, while that may be true in most cases, are girls inactively being discouraged? Every time a girl expresses interest in computers, science, science fiction, gaming, etc., and people act surprised that girl is going to say to herself, "Should I not be?" and will probably be less inclined to express an interest that is there.

As a society we also tend to expose boys to such things much easier and earlier than girls. A 12-year old boy might show interest in electronics while a 12 year old girl has never been exposed to it and therefor doesn't know if she's interested. This isn't an issue of trying to force engineering or anything else on girls, but of making sure they have the same opportunities as boys. In other words, while we might not be telling our daughters, nieces, and young girls in our lives that they should stop playing with blocks, or Arduinos and go sit in the corner and play with dolls, we do need to be mindful of the message we are sending. This goes for all areas of their lives, and for boys as well. What messages are we sending the next generation?

Mentoring our girls

One of our engineers working with a young girl.

Women Who Code is another great organization. They have meetups for everything from learning new skills, brushing up on current skills, playing around in a hackathon, or even working on interviewing skills. Girl Develop It is another good resource also with lots of meetups and classes. There are few better ways to polish up on your skills than to teach someone else.

Women in Engineering

One of our engineers in our Actobotics competition

I've listed a few organizations here that can help expose and encourage girls and women in engineering, but nothing is going to be a substitute for a real life mentor who will sit down and encourage young girls. I'd love to hear your stories about how you were encouraged, or how you have found a way to encourage those around you, whether that's through a parent, teacher, mentor oryour favorite organization.

Comments 24 comments

  • Aquacat / about 9 years ago / 3

    Technology Barbie - WRONG! A doll is a doll - playing with it doesn't make a person want to "be" what the doll is any more then video games made me want to grow up to be violent (I played space invaders relentlessly on my Atari and have never had the urge as an adult to go find space aliens and kill them.) Instead: How about a programmable Barbie jeep powered by an Arduino like processor instead of male dominated robots and quad copters? A Barbie house that you can program the lights in the rooms to turn on when the Barbie doll comes into it? A soccer ball with a slot for a sensor so a girl could design a circuit that would take the sensor output and calculate the force of the kick or speed of the ball? A kit that designs a circuit that calculates the speed of her softball bat swing? Best of all, a kit that determines who is the hottest guy in middle school (a temperature sensor with a pulse meter and a led readout.) Generate interest through the application of electronics to a girl world. Anyone want to hire me to do market research and toy engineering? I’m bored with research :)

    • a_cavis / about 9 years ago / 4

      Don't tempt me with with DARPA Grand Challenge Barbie and her autonomous jeep... Think of how snappy the TerraMax would look in pink and white

  • Tenacious_Techhunter / about 9 years ago / 2

    Don't forget the IEEE's Women In Engineering (WIE) group: http://www.ieee.org/membership_services/membership/women/index.html

  • TheRegnirps / about 9 years ago / 2

    I can't look at the Barbie picture without expecting some sort of Robot Chicken style catastrophe. There is no place to click "Play"!

    • a_cavis / about 9 years ago / 5

      Like FBI Barbie bursts in and arrests her for running a Pirate Bay mirror?

  • You could still consider giving Open Source Barbie realistic, human proportions. Look at those stick-figure limbs! She's not actually eating that pizza.

    • Erik-Sparkfun / about 9 years ago / 4

      Look at those stick-figure limbs! She’s not actually eating that pizza.

      To be fair, those are words my sister's had to listen to for almost 30 years now and she's never had problems with not eating enough.

    • M-Short / about 9 years ago / 1

      LOL, I agree, but there is only so much we can do. We actually bought the doll, our people are good, but we didn't make the doll, sorry.

      • Member #403458 / about 9 years ago / 2

        "We actually bought the doll... we didn’t make the doll, sorry."



        • Yeah, but that still requires a dedicated person to model a doll, various articles of furniture, etc...lots of time and effort involved when the pre made doll and furniture were sufficient. Perhaps a coating of paint to make the decidedly feminizing pink go away would have been in order. Maybe a bit of Sparkfun Red or a nice neutral wood brown?

          • Member #403458 / about 9 years ago / 1

            Some quick downloads on a Friday, could keep the printer running all weekend. I would much rather make something than just buy it...I thought that was the whole reason Sparkfun existed in the first place.

  • Member #640140 / about 9 years ago / 1

    When did science and engineering become not a meritocracy??

    Why should anyone be hired not on account of their competence and the merits of their ideas, but rather because of their race / gender / sexual orientation? That is itself the DEFINITION of discrimination. Why does Sparkfun support discrimination?

    Is it not insulting to suggest that women need "support" in engineering? That they can't do it on their own?? Why are women so increasingly being robbed of the opportunity to be judged on their own merits??

    Women already have equality of opportunity - as the author admits, nobody is stopping girls from entering technical fields. I find it especially illuminating that at least one person here in the comments suggests that it's a "severe cultural issue that needs correcting". This is cultural marxism, plain and simple.

    Sparkfun you used to be a decent supplier of cool / useful parts. These last few years I've noticed the increasing influence of SJW's on your business and I can guarantee you it's already hurting your profits. I actively avoid buying from you now and I'm not the only one who does.

    • Kamiquasi / about 9 years ago / 2

      Absolutely nothing in this article mentions anything about hiring practices in engineering fields. That straw man won't fly.

      This article is only about exposing (young) girls to engineering fields, encouraging those who take an interest, and supporting them if they choose to pursue that interest further. Is that 'insulting'? Only if you view that as hand-holding and something that would be required for girls specifically. I don't interpret it that way. Boys need that support just as well - opportunity alone doesn't cut it. The vast majority of my classmates aged 9-12 were well into sports, videogames, etc. whereas I was into electronics. If the teacher didn't support me in that early on and provided guidance to my next teacher and to parents for further schools to attend, you bet that things could have turned out very differently.
      The issue is that to this day, boys will more easily get that encouragement and support than girls do. You don't need to be a 'SJW' to recognize that, and you don't have to be one in order to do something about it. I encouraged and supported my neighbor's daughter, and I for one would love it if there were more girl-friendly (not necessarily girl-oriented) or rather more not-girl-unfriendly environments for her to explore her interest when she gets to be a little older herself. The lack of encouragement for girls getting into electronics when I grew up was palpable. Thankfully the local 'hackerspace' (it's more of a FabLab) is seeing more women in younger ages (late teens) now, so I have good hope that she won't just have the same opportunities she's always had, but also a welcoming environment ahead of her.

      As for SFE - they're still a decent supplier and manufacturer of cool / useful parts :)

      • Member #640140 / about 9 years ago / 1

        It's very relevant to this article. The title is "Supporting Women in Engineering" (not "Making Science Interesting for Girls") and it talks about ways to get girls interested in engineering... the inevitable conclusion (if successful) being, girls growing up to work in the field. It seems then that the author wants to change the demographics of the field to bring in more women BECAUSE they are women.

        And so my question still stands, when did science and engineering stop being a meritocracy?

        ALL kids should be exposed to science and engineering. Those that show interest should be encouraged and supported in the field. On what basis do you claim that boys are more supported or encouraged than girls? Could it not be that they are simply the ones who (in aggregate) exhibit more interest in the field?

        And as for girl-unfriendly environments, I don't know what you're talking about. There is no royal road to the technical fields. The only way to learn math or programming is by doing math or programming. Those that are interested will do it regardless.

        • Kamiquasi / about 9 years ago / 2

          You're making logical leaps that I wouldn't make. More importantly this is now a different argument. There's a huge difference between A. guiding my neighbor's daughter interest in electronics, B. suggesting that I'd be doing this to change demographics for the sake of it, and C. suggesting that hiring practices should cater to a person's gender as alluded to in the other comment.

          If there's a demographics change due to there being more exposure, encouragement and support for girls pursuing engineering fields, then I'm okay with that. If that demographics change doesn't happen, them I'm okay with that too; a demographics change is not my goal, it would just be a natural result.

          My basis is simply experience - you can call that anecdotal, but when you see it in various towns, in various schools, and in various hobby clubs. One I volunteered with to set up their bench material I saw a girl walk in with an interest in electronics, and after introductions she was ushered off to the e-textiles bench where another girl was - this is whereas all the boys were allowed to sit wherever they wanted without being ushered. That may seem innocent enough, and she may very well like e-textiles more anyway, but the point is that she didn't even get the choice. It's not always a case of people telling girls they can't do something, or that they're passive-aggressively ignoring them and making them (intentionally or not) feel unwelcome.
          That you haven't experienced this doesn't mean it doesn't exist, and just because I have experienced it doesn't meant that it's rife around the world (see some other comments on how different things can be between countries/cultures).

          As for the last sentence - I'm all for "where there's a will there's a way", but that doesn't mean that we needlessly drop obstacles into that way for them to conquer, girls or boys alike.

          • Member #640140 / about 9 years ago / 1

            That's not such a huge leap in logic to make after reading the article. Did you even check out the links?? (e.g., Girls Who Code specifically calls for gender parity in the field by 2020). Like you, I don't care if there is some natural change in the demographics. I don't like when this is forced though, and if you check out the links, their explanation boils down to "We want gender parity because this is a social change we want." That's not meritocratic and it hurts the field as a whole.

            And my argument still hasn't changed. Science and engineering are fundamentally meritocratic, focus and attention should be given to those who are interested and those who are able.

            Treating girls differently / specially && creating "girl friendly spaces" and girl-only-groups (like the links in the article) shortchanges both boys and girls. It misrepresents reality for girls and it takes away attention and opportunities from boys. I mean, in that e-textiles example you even agree she gets shortchanged by being shuffled straight to e-textiles.

            That's great that you guide your neighbor's daughter. That kind of mentoring and outreach is what people point back to and say "This is where I got started..." I think we can both agree education and exposure to the sciences is important, regardless of gender. Well then, why not instead of Sparkfun posting an article on how to get GIRLS interested in STEM, write an article on how to get KIDS interested in STEM. Better yet, maybe post links / walkthroughs / videos on cool projects that parents can do with their kids. Maybe Sparkfun could get someone like Sophie (that drawbot girl?) to do a special with them - it'd be a great opportunity for her, and kids seeing other kids doing something cool encourages them to do the same.

            Have the last word and have a nice day.

  • MicroLAN / about 9 years ago / 1

    In my experiences, this seems to be more of a US problem than worldwide. In my company (a large well known software/hardware company), we have a large presence in India, for instance (who doesn't in IT firms?). Anyways, in the USA, our engineers are primarily male. When I have to work with our engineers in India, it is very apparent that over there, the split is actually about 50/50 (with some of the women being actually much better engineers than their male counterparts!) There are a few exceptions, including one very highly respected woman who climbed the ladder all the way from the bottom of my team to ultimately becoming our highly technical director. I conduct some of the interviews for our team and, while I'd actually embrace the idea of hiring a female engineer, so far, in the 3 years I've been conducting interviews of outside candidates, I have yet to interview even one female!

    IMHO, we have some severe cultural issues here that need correcting and I applaud those who are working to change this. I'm also happy to say that my best friend is a very successful female mechanical engineer and it's great to sometimes bounce ideas off of her, as her difference in perspective can be very useful.

  • "While I might have been outnumbered I was not alone"

    This comment expresses the underlying problem better than you realize. Why would you ever feel alone in the middle of a group of people? The real problem that comes out here is a mentality of Men vs Women. It's not a competition, or at least it should not be.

    • Aquacat / about 9 years ago / 4

      As a strategic planner in a large research lab, and a married man for 23 years, I've observed that Men and Women frequently think differently and approach a problem differently. In order to solve research problems, I want to consider as many approaches to the problem as possible. In a male dominated lab, I am missing out on different apporaches that may be brought to the table were I to have more women/minorities engineers. Hence the reason we feel it is critical to attract more to STEM fields. It's not a competition, it's a collaboration. We want as many different perspectives to a proablem as we can get - a different cultures and the two sexes bring more perspectives.

      • And you sir have the correct mentality...leverage the differences, not pit them against each other.

        My comment was about the expressed feeling of being "outnumbered". In a collaboration, you should be part of the whole group, not a singled out section of it. you should not be feeling "alone" in a group. This feeling states a mentality of Me VS. Them, rather than Me AND Them. Now, as to whether the feeling stems from the feelings of the one or the feelings of the many is a question that must be addressed at every unique situation. I work in a production environment hand in hand with quite a few women. This is a physically demanding job that used to dominated by men. In our shop, we make allowances for differing strength of the individual, by providing the necessary tooling to allow anyone to do the job. However, there are no allowances for production...a man or a woman is expected to do the same work. And quite frankly, I've seen women outwork a few of the men. We tend to look at each person as just that, a person. The sex of the person does not matter, each individual is responsible for his/her job. Period.

        That all said, there are still underlying issues that crop up. Our employer has a strict non discrimination policy and it has been enforced when sexually based discrimination has occurred, both men against women and women against men. Part of our policy is the idea that we are not men or women on the floor...we are persons. If this mentality could be carried into the tech industry,and I see no reason it couldn't, then the mentality of men Vs. women would begin to disappear.

        • M-Short / about 9 years ago / 1

          I agree with you to some extent. That was the one part of my post I had the hardest time putting into words. But the truth is women do face different challenges in a technical field (as well as life), having friends who understand that is both helpful and encouraging. We should definitely be leveraging the differences (in a good way, it is possible to leverage them in a non-productive way) and not pitting men against women. We also want to keep in mind that those differences do exist, and women are outnumbered in technology. I can't think of a time I felt singled out as a woman engineering student, nor felt like it was me vs them, but at the same time it was encouraging to have female friends who understood those challenges.

  • Wonderful article Michelle! I recommend anyone to check out The Untold History of Women in Science and Technology article. It has some really great stories of amazing ladies in the science & tech field. Some of the ladies aren't as well known to a lot of people. :)

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