Why Aren't There More Women Engineers?

Question: Why are women so underrepresented in engineering? 

Jill\r\n Tarter: I don’t have a lot of female colleagues. It’s getting \r\nbetter. That is the good news. The gradient is in the right direction. \r\nIt isn’t yet 50/50 or it isn’t yet really representative of the \r\nintellectual capacity of our planet. I think engineering is probably the\r\n least represented with a female population and I’m not quite sure why \r\nthat is, because engineering problems are phenomenally interesting and \r\nchallenging, and it’s a creative profession. So I think it’s a shame. If\r\n women ran the world, different things would be engineered and invented.\r\n And I think it is a shame that we don’t take more advantage of them, \r\nbut as I said, it’s getting better and it has to get better with young \r\nmen as well as young women. I think one of the real challenges is if \r\nyou’re a woman in science, engineering, mathematics field you’re \r\noverwhelmingly likely to be married to someone else in that kind of a \r\nfield, right? Because those are the people you meet. You’re an \r\nunderrepresented population. The folks that you meet, your male \r\ncolleagues are likely to be your spouses. Then we have a problem, what \r\nwe call the two-body problem, finding suitable positions, two jobs for \r\none couple in the same area. That is a real challenge and we still have a\r\n tradition in this country where it’s more likely that if one of the two\r\n professionals ends up sacrificing a position or taking a lesser \r\nposition it’s more likely to be the women. Got to change that. Of course\r\n it’s much easier to be creative in terms of jobs and making \r\nopportunities when the economy is doing very well. It’s much harder in a\r\n tight economy such as we have now, but we need to be creative. Women \r\nhold up half of the sky. How can we not involve them? 

Question:\r\n Have you faced any challenges as a woman in science? 

Jill\r\n Tarter: When I was getting my engineering degree, I was the only \r\nwoman in a class of 300 guys and that had a lot of challenges. I had a \r\nnuclear physics course where I was asked to leave the room the day that \r\nthey discussed health hazards of nuclear reactors and sterility for my \r\nmale colleagues. I don’t know. It wasn’t appropriate for a woman to sit \r\nin the classroom and discuss. As if I, as a woman, wouldn’t have had any\r\n health issues if I had gone into that field, sort of silly. A lot of \r\nother things, but you know that was then and somehow I had enough \r\nstubbornness to make it through and I’m incredibly fortunate to have a \r\ncareer as a scientist and be able to blend my long-ago engineering \r\ntraining with what I’ve learned about the natural universe to try and \r\ncraft a better search program looking for signs of someone else’s \r\ntechnology. It’s really a privilege to be a scientist. First of all, you\r\n never have to grow up. You never have to stop asking why. You get to \r\npose your own questions and try and find your own answers and you get to\r\n do something tomorrow that you couldn’t do last week or last month. You\r\n get to learn new things almost every day. You get to learn something \r\nnew about something and, gosh, that’s a real privilege. I like to tell \r\nyoung people that being a scientist is very much like solving mysteries.\r\n We’re actually trying to be the first person to understand something. \r\nOther people may have worked on it, but there are problems that don’t \r\nyet have answers and we could be the first ones to figure something out.

Recorded\r\n on June 3, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

If women ran the world, different things would be engineered and invented. Unfortunately, many female scientists get sidetracked.

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