Writing this in 2020, it is widely known in the education field that there is a stark imbalance between the number of women and men active in STEM fields. Although women make up 47% of the overall US workforce, only 28% of the science and engineering roles are undertaken by women. Despite growing numbers of women majoring in STEM fields at the university level, more than double the amount of STEM degrees completed in the United States have been fulfilled by men rather than women. This is all despite the fact that during middle and school and high school, academic performance and participation in STEM classes such as Calculus, Statistics and higher level Math remain relatively balanced between males and females.
Although figures such as only 18% of Computer Science degrees being awarded to women can seem daunting challenges, consider another avenue of engineering that has consistently seen large proportions of women undergo year after year.
According to the American Society for Engineering Education, Biomedical Engineering leads all engineering disciplines in the percentage of degrees awarded to women at all levels-bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral. Even as far back as 2004, forty-five percent of all biomedical engineering degrees at the bachelor level went to women.
Why is there such a disparity between these different kinds of engineering? Columbia University Statistics graduate Francesca Jarett wrote the following for the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, describing the difference between working in a Silicon Valley software startup versus the atmosphere of Biomedical Engineering:
“ But biomedical engineering’s success in attracting and retaining females points to another aspect of the problem – one that rings very true to me. Biomedical engineering offers the ability to work in a profession that strives to improve the quality of people’s lives in very real, concrete ways. After my experience at the startup, I now know that computer science can also be a very direct way to change the world and, in fact, in the future, knowledge of programming is only going to be more necessary to every profession, even the “helping professions.”
Pennsylvania State University graduate student Janice Turlington also comments that
the most attractive part of Biomedical Engineering to her is:
“The ability, at least the opportunity, to be very creative. In other avenues of engineering, there’s more of a rigidity to it. Biomedical engineering is really brand new. There are no cut and dry answers.”
As Biomedical Engineering Educator Celeste Bain writes in her 2007 book Is there a Biomedical Engineer Inside of You? A Student’s Guide to Exploring Careers in Biomedical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering Technology:
“Many women grow up interested in engineering but want to do something that will affect people on a personal level. Biomedical engineering can have a direct impact on people’s lives and their health, as opposed to making a better gear for a car or designing it to go faster.”
There is certainly a lot of work left in closing the gender gap in STEM fields. The growing integration of computer science and traditional engineering disciplines mean that future engineers will be combining many different science, math and engineering practices within their work and their education. Seeing strong male and female interest in fields such as Biomedical Engineering provide not only an entry point for developing STEM skills in a focused interest area, but also a way to cement the fact that anyone can become an engineer. It’s up to us as educators and those in industry to capitalize on these interests and keep the door open for further exploration by anyone looking to engage in any STEM field.