UW Today

This is an archived article.

June 8, 1998

Wanted: More women and minority engineers to meet industry demand

ATTENTION ASSIGNMENT EDITORS: Martha Krebs, director of the Office of Energy Research for the U.S. Department of Energy, and Shirley Malcom, head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, will lead a roundtable discussion with University of Washington faculty, administrators and students 10-11 a.m. Monday, June 15, in the private dining room of the Edgewater Hotel at Pier 69. The discussion will focus on preparing women and minorities for science and engineering careers, which is the subject of a presentation Krebs and Malcom will be giving at 11:30 a.m. at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center as part of the Women in Engineering Programs & Advocates Network 1998 Conference.

The numbers paint a grim picture. While women and minorities are projected to make up 68 percent of new entrants to the U.S. labor force by the year 2000, only a small fraction of them are likely be trained as scientists and engineers. American companies are worried that the shrinking pool of qualified workers will hamper their ability to maintain a competitive edge in the global high-tech economy.

Academic, government and industry leaders will meet June 14-16 at Seattle’s Bell Harbor International Conference Center to discuss strategies for avoiding this work force shortage. The meeting is sponsored by the Women in Engineering Programs & Advocates Network (WEPAN), a non-profit organization founded in 1990 to increase the recruitment and retention of women in engineering and the supporting sciences.

“If we are going to continue to make progress in creating a more diverse work force and in recruiting the best and the brightest women and minorities, we must think in new ways and move beyond traditional approaches,” says Suzanne Brainard, immediate past president of WEPAN and director of Women in Engineering at the University of Washington. “The catalyst for this change is industry’s demand to fill its expanding work force with engineers who not only have state-of-the-art technical capability but also the ability to communicate, work in teams, think creatively and value diversity.”

To guide reforms at engineering education institutions, WEPAN is conducting a survey of 30,000 engineering students at 29 institutions nationwide, including the UW. Supported by a $75,000 grant from the Engineering Information Foundation, the survey will be administered to all female, and minority male, engineering students as well as a random sample of non-minority male students. Participants will be asked a range of questions to measure how well their school’s academic and social climates meet their needs. Results are expected to be available in August.

Progress has been made in boosting the proportion of women enrolled in engineering programs from just 2 percent in 1960 to almost 20 percent today. However, significantly more women than men drop out of engineering programs, and women still represent only 8.5 percent of the country’s engineers while comprising 46 percent of the overall labor force.

Meanwhile, affirmative action programs aimed at increasing the number of women and minorities in engineering fields have come under attack. At the same time, overall numbers for enrollments and degrees granted nationally in engineering are decreasing while industry demand for engineers is on the rise. During the past four years, engineering employment in the U.S. increased from about 1.7 million to more than 2 million.

The WEPAN conference is expected to draw more than 200 people from around the world. It will open at 10:45 a.m. Sunday with a welcome by WEPAN President Susan Staffin Metz and UW Dean of Engineering Denice D. Denton, the first woman engineering dean at a major research institution in the U.S. Following will be a series of workshops, presentations and poster sessions describing barriers to increasing representation of women in engineering fields as well as strategies for overcoming those barriers.

“The conference brings together some of the strongest leaders in the world in engineering education and industry,” says Brainard. “What we hope to accomplish is to share ideas and to start building some strategic partnerships for addressing the demographic and work force challenges ahead of us.”

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For more information, contact Brainard at (206) 543-4810 or brainard@rio.engr.washington.edu.