Wanted: Female engineers Few are getting encouragement.

Working woman

February 10, 1992|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

When Eleanor Baum was in high school in New York in the 1950s, she took advanced courses in math and science.

"Everyone told the guys in my classes to become engineers, and everyone told me I should be an elementary school teacher -- including my guidance counselor and my mother, who said if I became an engineer, no one would marry me," said Ms. Baum, dean of the college of engineering at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a tuition-free college in New York.

Ms. Baum says she "got angry and decided to become an engineer."She earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the City College of New York and a doctorate from Brooklyn's Polytechnic Institute.

She worked in the aerospace industry before going into academia. "I was able to do all the things I wanted to do," said Ms. Baum, who is married to a physicist and has two children. "Engineering is a challenging field, one women would enjoy because engineers have a shot at making a better world."

The National Science Foundation projects that by 2010 U.S. industry will be short 560,000 scientists and engineers. An untapped source is women, who make up only 8 percent of the nation's 1.88 million engineers, up from 5.3 percent in 1988.

But for Ms. Baum, whose engineering enrollment at Cooper Union is 25 percent female, progress is too slow.

That's why she and a group of other women engineers and college administrators have formed Women in Engineering Program Advocates Network, a national organization devoted to providing women greater access to engineering careers.

"Engineering is one of the few fields where starting salaries -- now at $32,000 a year -- are equitable for both women and men at graduation," said Jane Z. Daniels, newly elected president of the network and director of women in engineering programs at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Ms. Daniels, who is not an engineer, says there is a "real need for a national organization to attract and retain women in engineering because women aren't encouraged to study engineering in the first place, high schools don't encourage them to be good in math and science, and they don't have role models."

In the 12 years she has headed the Purdue program, the retention rate for women has risen to 60 percent, the same as for men. In 1980 it was 30 percent. Ms. Daniels says the new organization will be a clearinghouse for ideas and programs.

Of 326 U.S. engineering schools in 1991, 44 had formal programs for women.

The organization, with a membership of 201 individuals, 39 institutions and 12 corporations, is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation.

"Although the percentage of women graduating with engineering degrees has increased to 15 percent today from 2 percent in 1972, women still are underrepresented," said Ms. Daniels, whose university has 421 women out of 1,704 engineering students.

"Next fall our organization will do training programs at Purdue, Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and at the University of Washington in Seattle for schools that want to initiate or expand programs for women in engineering."

Another item on the agenda, is to evaluate programs and to provide female high school students with role models of female engineering students and female engineers.

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