Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 568:
WOMEN ENGINEERS, A SURVEY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 568.

Today, women engineers talk about their work. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Eleanor Baum, Dean of Engineering at Cooper Union, organized a survey of women engineers in 1989. She wondered how they liked their work. Let's see what they had to say.

In the first place, the women were eager to answer. The response was far better than you'd expect from a mail-out survey. About 2/3 of the women were under 35. Large numbers of women had been going into engineering since the late 1970s.

Eighty-two percent were happy with their salaries. Most of the women under 35 reported salaries over $40,000 per year. Among the older women, two thirds earned over $50,000. One third earned over $70,000.

Although the respondents were young, over half were married. About a tenth were divorced. A third had children under eighteen. Most felt they'd married their intellectual peers. Two thirds said their husbands did their share of housework, but only one third thought their husbands carried their share of child rearing.

The women had a good self-image. Two thirds called themselves attractive. Ninety-two percent said that being engineers didn't hurt their femininity. Ninety percent said they'd been good students. Eighty percent said they were leaders and assertive.

Of course, not all was peaches and cream. Over half said they'd run into some sort of harassment on the job. Half the women believe they'll be penalized if they take maternity leave. A third feel some exclusion from decision-making. Only one company in seven provided any child-care facilities.

But the largest and most forceful complaint wasn't with their work. It was with the hurdles they had to jump to get to their work. Too many of their high-school counselors discouraged them from going into engineering. They even discouraged them from going into math and science. So did some of their high school math and science teachers.

At the college level things were better. Only a tenth of the women said their professors weren't supportive.

The survey paints a picture of women who face many of the same problems all working women face. But it shows us women who have remarkably high self-esteem, surprising overall job satisfaction, and very good skills for coping with problems. It shows us a group of women who've made a very good career choice. Maybe it's a choice some of you should think about making, as well.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Baum, E., The Cooper Union 1989 National Survey on working Women Engineers. New York: The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1989.

Baum, E., The Cooper Union 1989 National Survey of Undergraduate Women Engineering Students. New York: The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1989.


This episode was written in 1991. For a more current look at women in engineering, check the website for the Society of Women Engineers:

http://www.swe.org


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode