Author
Beth Cady Senior Program Officer National Academy of Engineering

Diversity Improves Engineering Design

PostedThursday, March 23, 2017 at 3:38 PM

March is Women’s History Month, a great time to remember pioneering women in engineering, celebrate women who are making a world of difference today, and inspire the next generation. For years women faced many institutional obstacles to entering engineering education, although some women overcame bias and other challenges to succeed in engineering. Some came from a long line of revolutionary women; others became pioneers due to life circumstances. These women still serve as role models for current engineers, students, and kids who are interested in engineering.

Although today there are more women in engineering education and occupations than before, women are still not equally represented. Half the US population and over half of college students and graduates are women, yet women are merely 20% of engineering graduates and only 14.5% of employed engineers. This underrepresentation of women in engineering is more than just unfair; engineering as a field is better with a more diverse group of engineers involved in the design process. For example, early automobile air bags were only designed for men because “many automakers claimed that considering women’s health in engineering was too radical” and they did not want to spend the extra money for two crash test dummies. Because women were not included in the research, development, or testing of air bags, they were at much greater risk of injury from contact with the air bag itself than men were. As recently as 2012, female crash test dummies were still not placed in the driver’s seat for testing frontal crashes, leading to potentially dangerous situations for all women who drive cars! A similar situation has occurred in medical research and biomedical engineering; it wasn’t until 2014 that researchers were required to use female lab animals in early trials for new medications. Years of research focused on male animals and humans had resulted in unsafe medical advice to women. It is critical for engineering to consider all the consequences for a particular designed item for all potential users or affected bystanders.

Engaging students around the idea of considering a wide variety of viewpoints during an engineering design activity is an important step in the process. One method is to have the students discuss the possible benefits and detriments of an existing engineered product. In this hands-on engineering ethics activity from TeachEngineering, students will evaluate the environmental and societal impacts of designs and then develop solutions to make those designs more equitable and accessible to all populations. 

LinkEngineering has several resources to support educators interested in diversity in engineering education, and many of our community members are happy to share their expertise in issues of diversity and equity. If you have questions about incorporating Women’s History Month into your educational activities, log in and ask the community!

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  • Elizabeth  Parry

    Posted 1 year and 12 months ago

    This is a great post! While we female engineers certainly strive to be as “gender neutral” as possible, biology is simply a fact! I use the seat belt example in many of my speeches, and people are mystified. Yet the questions seem to revolve around “what? They wouldn’t test women in the face of documented data about stature differences?” ....okay maybe I amped up their question but the idea is there! And the second is “I thought women wanted to be the same as men.” The fact is women, through that biology thing, are not physically the same as men and those differences, just like average heights of different cultures or races, should be taken into consideration when developing and testing safety--or any-- equipment. Or medicines. Or any other product, process or system. For solution development, the best plan is to have a diverse solution team. A broader perspective brings about better solutions, and under the skin, we all have the same brain design. And THAT’S what female engineers want people to understand more than anything!

    When I work with elementary schools to change the culture to one based on engineering problem solving, the habit of mind of ethics is taught to all down to the youngest children. Inclusion and diversity are ethical matters, and if they don’t know it, we can’t grow it. Happy Women’s History month!
  • Linda  Kekelis

    Posted 2 years ago

    This blog offers the perfect combination of knowledge about women’s engagement in engineering and a hands-on activity to celebrate Women’s History Month. I especially like the activity that Beth highlights in her blog—Engineering Ethics, the design challenge from Teach Engineering. Every product and service impacts groups differently and students can begin to understand this concept and the importance of having different perspectives around the table when ideas are generated, tested, and redesigned. I encourage educators—both classroom teachers and after-school educators—to bring in a role model in celebration of Women’s History Month. When properly supported, a visit with a role model will make a positive impact on youth and role models. Lastly, I hope that everyone considers how boys benefit just as much as girls from participation in activities during Women’s History Month.