Empowering Women and Girls in Engineering

Earlier this month, I was invited to attend the AIChE Foundation’s Rising Star Workshop held at the global headquarters of Pfizer, Inc. in New York, NY. Although the workshop had several goals, its main purpose was to empower and inspire women leaders in chemical engineering.

One of the most interesting topics that we discussed was the discrepancy in self-assuredness between men and women. Although women are just as competent and capable as their male counterparts, we are often held back by insecurities, a reluctance to take big risks, and a hesitancy to make mistakes.

The confidence gap

As Katty Kay and Claire Shipman assert in The Atlantic article “The Confidence Gap,” when it comes to success, confidence matters just as much as competence. “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities,” they write.

This is a complex problem that perhaps stems from factors such as upbringing, societal pressures, and biology. Girls often have a developmental edge when starting grade school — they learn the differences between good behavior and bad behavior earlier. Compared to the girls, boys are more likely to be rebuked by teachers about their conduct. Receiving negative feedback at a young age may condition boys to more easily shrug off criticism later in life — and be less afraid of receiving it in the first place.

Balancing the scales

Likewise, something about the way that girls and boys are raised draws boys to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers, and pushes girls away. Organizations such as DiscoverE are working to balance the scales. Their program Girl Day is a worldwide campaign to engage girls in engineering. Targeted toward elementary- and middle-schoolers, Girl Day helps girls develop an interest in engineering, build their confidence in their problem-solving skills, and create a STEM identity.

Key findings from DiscoverE’s new literature review study, “Despite the Odds,” show that if girls are introduced to engineering earlier in life, they are more likely to believe they are capable of becoming an engineer later. The study asserts that having a positive role model is one of the most important factors in motivating young women to pursue engineering.

My personal journey to chemical engineering

Discussing these issues at the Rising Star Workshop reminded me of my own journey to chemical engineering. Although I was always interested in all things STEM, as a freshman in high school, I thought computer programming could be a rewarding career path. I joined the FIRST Robotics team at my high school because my older brother was on the team and it looked like a lot of fun.

Upon joining, every member of our team was assigned to a sub-team that helped design, build, program, and drive the robot. However, I learned that the only other girls on the team, and the only female team mentor, were all part of the marketing sub-team, tasked with creating our logo and posters and writing fundraising proposals. I chose to be on our programming sub-team, which was responsible for writing the code that would make the robot drive, spin, reverse, toss, and score.

Although very few of us on the programming sub-team had practical computer programming experience, it felt like I was always looking over the boys’ shoulders — watching them code rather than getting to be in the hot-seat. That season, I didn’t get to write a single line of code for our robot. Being a freshman and the only female, I didn’t have the confidence to assert myself, or to ask questions or chime in with suggestions that would demonstrate my aptitude.

I spent months learning about robotics and computers, attending team meetings and traveling to robotics competitions. But I didn’t feel like I was a valuable part of the team and I didn’t feel like I deserved to go to our competitions. At the end of the season, I knew I would never be a programmer.

Later in high school, my chemistry teacher — who happened to be a female chemical engineer — suggested I look into chemical engineering. Her words of encouragement did more to point me toward a career path than an entire season of robotics. A positive role model was my strongest motivator to pursue chemical engineering.

Initiatives girls need to succeed

Even though a girl is interested in engineering, that does not mean she will make it through college and into the workforce — it takes strong role models, encouragement to take risks, and reassurance that despite challenges, she deserves a place in the profession. AIChE’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, like the Rising Star Workshop, and other programs like DiscoverE’s Girl Day, are sorely needed to motivate young women to pursue engineering and stay in the profession.

Be a part of AIChE and help inspire the next generation of chemical engineers! Join or renew your AIChE membership today at aiche.org/membership.