STEM Fields Need More Girl Power

Getting More Girls Into Control, Automation and STEM Professions is Going to Require a Few Unorthodox Steps

By Jim Montague

There must be 50 ways to start this story. I could say it’s bugged me that every salary survey I’ve ever covered about the control and automation field has shown that its gender-specific demographics are always about 98% male. Or I could once again echo the cry that everyone in the field is retiring, so it’s suffering an oozing brain drain, and where, oh where, are we going to get the next generation of engineers? Or I could report that, while doing some early research for this year’s two cover articles on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, I’ve turned up some crucial news. Finally, I could just give thanks for getting unchained from my desk, and once again having the opportunity to go out and cover a story in person. Take your pick.

Whatever the introduction, the way to solve control and automation’s gender imbalance and secure more new engineers is obviously to get more girls involved when they’re young, so they’ll choose to become technical professionals when they grow up. As it stands, the field looks more like a stunted, patriarchal nation state that holds back the minds and potential of half its young people because of some calcified and obsolete tribal imperatives. Sound familiar? Anyway, it’s time to move beyond coaching soccer and girls’ softball, and get more of our daughters into control, automation, STEM and other math and science-related fields and jobs.

Luckily, one of the best efforts to solve this problem that I’ve seen recently was at the 10th annual “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” event put on March 7 for more than 100 girls by Siemens Industry at its motor controls and power components manufacturing facility in West Chicago, Ill. The evening program brought together mostly elementary and middle school girls and their parents for presentations, factory tours, problem-solving challenges and demonstrations by local, competitive robotics team, “Pwnage,” and its Frisbee-launching robot. The challenges included seeing who could build the tallest tower using bamboo skewers and marshmallows, and whose paper airplanes could fly the farthest. Because the event is now in its 10th year, one of its original 15 attendees in 2006, Elizabeth Drennan, returned to share her experiences and encourage her young counterparts. Drennan is now a senior in computer engineering at the University of Illinois-Champaign.

“Bringing more women into engineering gives our profession a greater diversity of experience and thinking,” explains Jayne Beck, motor control center and switchboard engineering manager at Siemens West Chicago. “Diversity means people have different ways of approaching problems and challenges, and this brings value to us and our company.”

Read more: Six Fun STEM Facts You Might Not Know

However, getting more girls into control, automation and STEM professions is going to require a few unorthodox steps. One of the main reasons there haven’t been more women in these technical fields all along is that girls typically clam up when they’re in co-ed science and math classes with boys. I’ve heard teachers and professors point out this problem ever since I covered many of suburban Chicago’s school districts as a weekly newspaper reporter. Girls will participate in these topics enthusiastically when it’s just them, but will typically fall silent as soon as boys are in the room. Most teachers faced with this

Girls typically clam up when they're in co-ed science and math classes with boys.

phenomenon said, “The girls don’t want to outshine the boys,” which make me think it’s part of an even more ancient and powerful biological imperative—got to be attractive to potential future mates. Unfortunately, it also seems to have stopped most girls from getting involved and inspired in engineering and other technical fields at a time when our modern world desperately needs them.

Luckily again, there are a few girls-only engineering classes emerging around the U.S. In fact, a few weeks before the Siemens event, I also showed up for an Engineering Night Open House at Niles North High School in Skokie, Ill., where more robotics teams and machining centers were on display. The high school has seven engineering classes as part of its Project Lead the Way curriculum, including a single-gender introduction to engineering section, which is reportedly one of only three in the U.S. “Girls are usually quiet and shy when boys are in a class,” says Niles North engineering teacher Angela Hankes. “So it helps to have a girls-only class where they can participate more fully and learn more.”

In general, I’m not for segregation, but in this case the needs of the students have to come first. They and the engineering professions have to correct this old and counterproductive imbalance.