How Do You Get Women to Stay in Engineering?
Nerd Girls Has the Answer
By John R. Platt
Just look at the faces of the
engineers at your next meeting or conference and
you'll see something obvious: it's still a
male-dominated profession. While more and more
women study for and enter technology fields
every year, the unexpected truth is that they
don't stay. In fact, according to a recent study
by the National Research Council, women leave
high technology, computer, science and
engineering careers twice as frequently as men.
are the Nerd Girls?
WHO WE ARE
We are a growing, global
We want to encourage
other girls to change
their world through
Engineering and Math,
while embracing their
THINGS WE BELIEVE
Brains are beautiful
Geek is Chic.
Smart is sexy.
Why do women leave the
profession, or not consider entering it in the
first place? "One of the problems is that nobody
really knows what engineers do," says
Karen Panetta, Professor of Electrical and
Computer Engineering at Tufts University and
creator of the nationally acclaimed "Nerd
Girls" education program. Women especially
don't see the reasons for becoming electrical or
mechanical engineers because they don't
understand the roles engineers play. "Other
fields, like biomedical, are popular for women
because they see the end goal and it motivates
them," Panetta says.
New Ways to Teach Women
Because she got her start in
industry instead of going right into teaching,
Panetta says she has a different perspective on
how to teach students, both men and women. "I
don't treat my students like students. I treat
them like team members. It's a team effort in
industry, and in learning. You have to
participate by asking questions and doing lab
In her classes, and in her Nerd
Girls curriculum, Panetta picks projects that
give her teams concrete goals. "Everything has a
way to benefit the community, individuals or the
environment," she says. "Unless you show your
students that you're putting your theory to
practice, you're just teaching history."
The first project she had one of
her Nerd Girl teams work on was building a solar
car. "You don't usually see women with cars,"
she says. But the sustainable energy project,
and others like it, showed her students that EEs
weren't spending their lives sitting in cubicles
working on meaningless tasks. "Women need to see
the big picture, not just a small piece of the
Forcing young women to work in
teams on tough projects also encourages them to
break through their confidence issues. "Even
though women might score well on exams, they
think it is pure luck," says Panetta. "I
couldn't imagine having so little
self-confidence. Succeeding, to me, is not by
the grade, it's by focusing on your own learning
experience. So I picked class projects that were
absolutely intimidating. You couldn't do them on
your own, you needed a team. The research and
theory that they learned taught them to ask the
right questions, which is the key to finding the
Her teaching methods have proven
results. "Ninety-five percent of my girls go on to
graduate school," she says. Nationwide, only 8
of women undergrads in EE go on to graduate
Entering the Job Market
The skills Panetta teaches also
help these young women in the job market. "Now,
when any of these girls go out and interview,
they're head and shoulders above their
competition. It's not your GPA, it's not what's
coming out of you."
But that first job is also a
tough stepping stone for many women. Part of
that, Panetta says, might come from their
university experience — or lack of it. "They
graduate from their undergrad institution, and
if they don't feel they have a competence, they
feel they don't have what it takes to go on."
Many women also graduate without
what Panetta calls a "capstone" experience.
"They didn't have something that pulled it all
together for them. Maybe their internship wasn't
gratifying or something like that. One or two
bad experiences can really make a difference.
Women need to use and grow their skills or they
feel they're not going anywhere. Guys on the
other hand — they'll just say it was boring and
shake it off."
And that first job can be
overwhelming and under-satisfying, which may
result in women saying the profession is not for
them, even after completing the several years of
education that led to that job. Having a good
mentor helps, says Panetta, who points out that
most schools don't provide students with a good
experience, and recent grads end up needing
Nerd Girls to the Rescue
Panetta's Nerd Girls education
program (which has long been supported by IEEE)
is about to get a huge boost. MPH Entertainment,
the producers of the popular "Dog Whisperer" TV
show, are currently casting a "Nerd Girls"
reality show. Developed from Panetta's
curriculum, the producers promise the show will
encourage women "to change their world through
science, technology, engineering and math, all
while embracing their feminine power."
MPH partner Jim Milio recently
said, "We believe that empowering young women to
demonstrate that 'geek is chic' and 'brains are
beautiful' offers a potent and compelling
message in today's media-obsessed society."
Panetta says Hollywood has been
calling about the Nerd Girls brand for several
years now, but MPH was the partner she has been
waiting for. "The girls are going to be doing
good things for the community and people, and
we're going to be changing these girls' lives
and making them more confident."
The women who end up being cast
on the show will be challenged with tough
problems to solve, while also learning to work as
a team and bring in ideas from outside their own
experience. "I teach them, let's use our
research skills and networks and find the right
answers," Panetta says. "I want to show them how
to use these resources that are all around them.
An inter-disciplinary approach is vital. Maybe
they need to bring in artists or sculptors or
singers or athletes to make it all happen. You
can't do engineering alone; it just doesn't
Panetta says she has high hopes
for the program. "One of the things I'm hoping
for is to get out and help people around the
country who are asking us for help," she says.
"We're looking at populations that industry
doesn't look at as a major profit margin. We
want the people that have been forgotten, to
come up with solutions to the problems they are
facing. There's nothing better to show the power
of engineering without all of the scary math and
science behind it. The show will tell people:
here's what you can do."
Along the way, Panetta hopes to
inspire not just young girls, but also their
fathers. "We're hoping fathers will watch, too.
Don't forget that one-third of the membership of
IEEE Women in Engineering is men. Fathers want
their daughters to have opportunities."
casting process for the show has already
begun, with women (aged 18-23) submitting
applications and videos to Panetta and the
producers. "We already have lots of great
candidates, but we have extended the deadline to
give everyone a chance to apply," Panetta says.
Applications are due 1 August 2010 for phase 1
of the casting process.
Interested? Pull out the video
camera and get started. Don't let fear get in
your way, advises Panetta. "If you can handle
the math and science of an engineering degree,
how hard can anything else be?"
John R. Platt is a freelance
writer currently living in coastal Maine. He is
a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer,
Tonic.com and IEEE's The Institute. He writes
the Extinction Countdown blog for Scientific
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