Ladies: Stop running from engineering

February 23, 2012: 2:19 PM ET

Despite efforts from companies and nonprofits to encourage more women to join the engineering world, female ranks in the field are still quite small. What's gone wrong?

By Colleen Leahey, reporterscience_girls

FORTUNE – What do we expect from our next generation of American women? Not a whole lot, says Sheryl Sandberg. "We don't raise our daughters to be as ambitious as our sons," the Facebook COO said several weeks ago at the World Economic Forum. "Last month, there were t-shirts sold [at Gymboree] that said 'Smart like Daddy' for the boys and 'Pretty like Mommy.' Not in 1951. Last month."

In an effort to tackle some of these ingrained assumptions, today marks Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, an initiative launched by the National Engineer Week Foundation, which aims to promote this career path to young women. Why girls rather than women? Erin Wakefield, a senior component design engineer and engineering manager at Intel (INTC), believes we've got to get girls interested at the middle school level. "When they don't get interested in engineering at a young age, it's almost too late."

To be fair, more women are entering the engineering world today than in years past. In 1983, only 5.8% of engineers in the U.S. were women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fast-forward 26 years to 2006, and 10.7% of engineers were women. And women made up 20.2% of computer software engineers, 18.4% of chemical engineers, 8.1% of engineering managers, and just 5.9% of mechanical engineers as of 2009. So we've made progress, but not much. So, then, why are women treating engineering like it's the Plague (especially when it's one of the most well-rested professions around)?

Much like Wakefield, Wendy Hawkins, executive director at the Intel Foundation, thinks it comes down to making an appeal to girls at the right time in their lives. "Middle school is a crucial decision-making time. Kids finally have the education to make their own class schedule choices, and exciting and engaging work appeals tothem."

Intel has teamed up with programs like the SRC Undergraduate Research Opportunities (SRC-URO) and Engineering is Elementary (EIE), as well as networks like the Society of Women Engineers to promote engineering education and awareness among young women. The Intel Foundation also created the Intel Science Talent Research, a pre-college science competition. (The 2011 runner-up was 17-year old Michelle Hackman.) But Hawkins admits these efforts are modest. "Overall, there's a lot of attention toward women and engineering. But it's difficult to invest and maintain a program long enough to bring about change," she says. Just 20% of the Intel Foundation's investments are reserved for fostering engagement in women and minority students, according to Hawkins.

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Is it time for companies to step up? "Most companies in the high-tech industry have efforts focused in this direction; it's a constant topic of conversation," says Hawkins. But she seems to think the focus is off. "We need to focus on girls, on young people. We need to put more young women in contact with adults in engineering. Is this the life, the whole package that they want? [Girls] need more opportunities to create, design, to make something."

For Wakefield, it was just that combination that got her interested in engineering. Role models played a major role in shaping her career path,especially at a young age. "My dad worked in computer science. He was a tech dork. With him, it was never weird that I was a girl working on computer things," she says. "And my cousin Stacy was about 15-years older than me. She was a mechanical engineer, and I saw her as glamorous corporate woman, often traveling to cool places with lots of money and she always dressed nice."

Wakefield's cousin made engineering seem cool when she was young. As she grew older, though, her interests shifted. "Generally, guys in engineering are motivated by coolness. Women are motivated by their impact to help."

Wakefield hit a point in her career when she felt apathetic about her work; she was building a graphic chip and hated that she was working her butt off to allow some kid to play Halo with better explosions. As the chip developed, though, the Mayo clinic got involved, adding a medical imaging component to the project. She had found a source of motivation.

A personal story like Wakefield's can change a woman's view toward engineering. But there's always room for self-doubt along the way. The "Imposter Theory" or, as Wakefield defines it, the "I-hope-no-one-figures-out-I'm-not-as-good-as-they-think-I-am" theory, is a huge factor for women who change their college majors from engineering to other disciplines. "We need to help them gain confidence. They need to know that just because they didn't construct a floppy disk at age five doesn't mean they shouldn't be there."

The noble-but-small initiatives like the kind that Intel has been promoting are obviously not enough. The complete solution remains elusive. Hawkins emphasizes that the industry is desperate for women. "How are we supposed to design products that appeal to women without women?" Good question.

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