Akron, Ohio — When Heidi Cressman's daughter received the prestigious Gold Award in Girl Scouts, she told the presenter she wished to pursue a professional career in medicine — to which the presenter replied, "Nursing is a great field!"
For young women and minorities, aspirations toward a career in engineering can carry the same stigma as does the pursuit of a medical career: the perception that the field is too intellectually stringent, or that somehow women cannot handle the work-life balance that such a career demands.
The hard reality, Cressman said, is that pursuing a career in male-dominated fields narrows the perceived opportunities for young women.
"The perception for a young woman in medicine is that they will gravitate toward a field in nursing, not as a doctor," said Cressman, an instructor at the University of Akron and director of the school's Women in Engineering program. "This is societal, and it starts very young: Do you want a pink blanket or a blue blanket? The perception is that women can't handle the emotional pressure of medicine, and engineering is in just that same mindset."
Women in Engineering was started in 1993 in the College of Engineering by two professors who wished to combat the gender imbalance in the industry. Cressman has directed both the WIE and the Increasing Diversity in Engineering Academics (IDEA) programs since 2007. Both are under the auspices of Diversity and Inclusion in the newly restructured College of Engineering and Polymer Science, Cressman said.
Graduation rates for women in engineering still lag men but are trending in the right direction. When Cressman graduated in 1988 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering — her second bachelor's degree, with another coming in 1986 in applied mathematics — only 5 percent of the engineering degrees went to females. When Cressman took over the WIE and diversity programs in 2007, that percentage had risen to almost 13 percent for graduating engineers.
That imbalance continues in the professional realm, as women are paid less and have fewer executive positions than their male counterparts, Cressman said.
The goal of the WIE program is to push the number of women in engineering from the current one-third in the industry to near 50 percent.
"It's not a quick fix for women or minorities," she said. "You can't just snap your fingers. But we're moving in the right direction. I think the best ideas are generated by the most diverse teams, as everyone brings their professional life experiences. It seems more companies are getting behind these philosophies, and we are seeing that companies with more diverse executive boards are more successful. Women are earning a seat at the table."