Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Blueprint Column: Women in Engineering - Changing the Odds

by Scott McGregor, President and Chief Executive Officer, Broadcom Corporation

Some of the greatest successes in the modern economy come from finding multibillion-dollar industries that are ripe for disruption. Engineers spend a lot of time looking for such opportunities. And yet, one of the ripest targets for disruption is right before their eyes: the engineering industry itself.

Here’s how to disrupt it: Increase the number of women in the engineering profession.

Of all the science, technology, engineering, and applied mathematics (STEM) professions in which women are under-represented, the disparity is greatest in engineering. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 women comprised 45 percent of scientists, 25 percent of mathematicians, 22 percent of technology workers, but only 10 percent of engineers. Today, there are plenty of young women taking the required high school courses to pursue an engineering degree, including AP calculus and physics. Yet in engineering and computer sciences professions, where workforce demand and salaries are among the highest, the percentages of women earning degrees continues to lag.

By the time young women get to college, only three percent of them will declare a major in engineering and of the three percent, they are least likely to choose electrical and electronic engineering, according to the Department of Education. Female representation declines further at the graduate level and yet again in the transition to the workplace.

The fundamental issue to be addressed is gender bias. So where does it start and what can we do about it?

Middle school is a great place to start, where girls’ achievements and interest are shaped by stereotypes (“boys are better at math and science than girls”), biases (“math is hard”) and cultural beliefs (“engineering is a profession for men”). Researchers discovered that even subtle references to these gender stereotypes have been found to reduce girls’ interest in science and math.

In a landmark paper, “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” researchers concluded “The answer lies in our perceptions and unconscious beliefs about gender in mathematics and science.” In other words, we can’t solve the gender disparity problem without first recognizing our own biases that are formed early and all too often persist into the workplace. The good news is that the negative impact of those faulty perceptions can be lessened, just by becoming aware of them.

We must celebrate the achievements of girls and women in STEM professions and provide young hopefuls with role models and mentors along the path from school to the workplace. We must encourage girls and young women to pursue engineering careers through interactive programs in our local schools and community.

We can enhance STEM curricula in schools, beginning in elementary school with hands-on projects that help girls build confidence in spatial skills, an area where girls underperform boys. Even playing with construction kits and toys can help girls build confidence in the spatial skills they will need later on to succeed at engineering. In middle school, 3-D computer games and digital sketching tools can reinforce that confidence. As their confidence increases, girls are less likely to fall back on the traditional stereotypes about gender, and more likely to feel like they “belong” in STEM courses.

Early exposure and encouragement in mathematics is also key. Studies have shown that girls who take calculus in high school are three times more likely to pursue STEM careers, including engineering.

Also crucial is creating a workplace culture that is welcoming and supportive of women. Enlightened work-life policies are important, but so too are active efforts to attract, promote, and retain women. Seminars, luncheons, peer coaching, scholarships, networking gatherings, and continuing education programs have been shown to be effective in turning talented women engineers into talented workplace leaders.

By spearheading women’s leadership programs and providing a range of professional development opportunities geared specifically for women, we can encourage women through all levels of their career. These women, in turn, can take that learning and inspiration back out to the community – which will help attract more young women into engineering as they see more female role models. It’s a virtuous cycle.

The “Why So Few?” report was funded by a number of organizations, including the National Science Foundation, and was published by the American Association of University Women. Here’s a link to thepaper

By the way, for anyone who thinks they can’t possibly have biases that impact the perception of women, or other stereotypes, check out this study at Harvard and take one or more of the tests.

About the Author

Scott McGregor serves as Broadcom's President and Chief Executive Officer. In this role, he is responsible for guiding the vision and direction for the company's corporate strategy. Since joining Broadcom in 2005, the company has expanded from $2.40 billion in revenue to $8.31 billion in 2013 revenue. Broadcom's geographic footprint has grown from 13 countries in 2005 to 25 and its patent portfolio has expanded from 4,800 U.S. and foreign patents and applications to more than 20,850.

McGregor joined Broadcom from Philips Semiconductors (now NXP Semiconductors) where he served as President and CEO from 2001 to 2004. He joined Philips in 1998 and rose through a series of leadership positions.  McGregor received a B.A. in Psychology and a M.S. in Computer Science and Computer Engineering from Stanford University. He serves on the board of Ingram Micro, on the Engineering Advisory Council for Stanford University and President of the Broadcom Foundation. Most recently, McGregor received UCLA's 2013 IS Executive Leadership Award.