Women in engineering

January 2008 » Columns
The wasting of female technical talent until nearly the end of the 20th century has been inexcusable in our American, or any other, society.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S.

A recent announcement by Princeton University reminded me that I have not written recently about a subject that is dear to my heart. According to Princeton, its 2007 freshman class in the School of Engineering and Applied Science comprised a record-breaking, 41.7-percent women. "With 254 students," a press release stated, "the matriculating class is the second-largest ever—just five students shy of last year’s record size of 259. The percentage of women in this year’s class is nearly six percentage points above last year, which was the previous all-time high."

Additionally, the school said, 32 percent of first-year students enrolled in Princeton’s graduate programs in engineering are women and the percentage of female faculty members in Princeton’s engineering school has doubled during the last 10 years, from 7.7 percent in 1997 to 15.4 percent (20 faculty members) in 2007.

When I attended college—even at so-called liberal centers of learning such as Princeton, Rutgers, and Stanford—there were no women, or practically none, in the technical disciplines. While at Rutgers (circa 1950), there were no female students in the College of Engineering and, if memory serves, there was only one woman in the other technical center of education, Rutgers College of Agriculture. It goes without saying that there were no female professors in either of the technical colleges.

I don’t know what the numbers were at Princeton or Stanford, but I’m not so sure that those universities had any female students in the respective Colleges of Engineering back then either. As I recall, there may have been one female professor/lecturer on the Stanford engineering faculty. We should all be grateful that suppression of approximately half of all humankind (women) is finally ending in many parts of the world, as indeed it should.

It is increasingly evident that women are entering the field of engineering in greater numbers. For example, I cannot help but notice that not only does the rank-and-file membership in the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) include many women, but also the leadership of my local chapter in New Jersey is heavily sprinkled with females. In fact, of the branch officers and directors for 2007-2008, four are women—the president-elect, the secretary, the Younger Member Group head, and the second past president.

Teresa L. Peterson, P.E., a project manager at Gannett Fleming, Inc., and president of the North Jersey Branch of ASCE, provided the following additional information: Between 2001/2002 and 2005/2006, three women served as president of the branch and continue to serve in various capacities. Additionally, of 1,901 members assigned to the North Jersey Branch, 206 are female (10.8 percent). Of perhaps more importance than the membership breakdown, I have noticed that an increasing proportion of the engineers attending meetings and participating in the give-and-take of chapter business are women.

A recent article in the New York Times, "United effort puts a record number of women in hard hats," quoted Pat A. DiFilippo, executive vice president of Turner Construction Company, one of New York’s largest contractors. He said, "Women are finding this is a business that is not the boy’s club it once was. It’s a business that needs people to perform tasks." While the quote referred primarily to construction, in general, it also applies to civil engineers in construction and to the women who are contributing to major civil engineering projects.

The wasting of female technical talent until nearly the end of the 20th century has been inexcusable in our American, or any other, society. Nevertheless, the practice continues in cultures where women are prohibited from practicing a profession (engineering) either because of religious constraints or by antiquated perceptions that some activities are "not appropriate" for what at one time was known as the "weaker sex."

Both in mind and body, women are capable of producing what is necessary to enhance a growing and liberated society. The rise of women to levels that were unheard of as late as the middle of the 20th century is an indication that we are moving away from the dark ages. I hope this trend continues and that other nations and societies join us in modernity and freedom for all people.

Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 201-441-9719; or e-mail him at pagan@cenews.com.


Upcoming Events

See All Upcoming Events