As a women engineer (electrical), I ponder this question quite often. I just finished reading an article “Women Engineers Trace Tech Gender Gap to Childhood” that has some good points. Being the oldest sister of three brothers and the mother of two daughters (one is an engineer), I have a theory based on my many hours of observation.
First, engineering and technical studies are designed for concentration not discussion. As a child, learning the laws of physics requires trial and error and lots of concentration. Especially with girls, it is important to discuss what is happening and why. My girls never spent much time throwing a ball. In contrast, my brothers spent hours pitching a baseball to each other. They pitched just about every day, whatever the weather. They did this mostly without conversation, except to yell an insult when the ball was missed … even if it was a deadly throw. My brothers also spent hours hammering nails into boards, not my girls. Boys can spend hours “playing” with little conversation, not girls. Girls are very interactive, they learn by talking and they talk all the time. I found ways to discuss momentum and inertia using things like roller skating (especially when holding onto a rope) and bicycling. There is so much to talk about but engineering is a traditionally quiet discipline.
Women and men also think differently. Whether you agree that women are circular thinkers and men think linearly or have some other explanation, it is not hard to see that men and women are different in how they process information. It seems that our brain differences are complementary. This is instructive not only for raising a family and interacting socially, but is beneficial in business and technology.
During the 1990s, the idea of concurrent engineering took root. It is a systems approach that evaluates the life-cycle of a product or project and considers the entire development environment for optimization. This means you not only look at the process, technology and resources, but business model, corporate culture and the people component. Women are naturals at concurrent engineering and perhaps concurrent engineering emerged because of the rising number of women in technology. Women bring people together, ask for suggestions and disseminate information efficiently which is not the traditional structure of engineering. Engineering is generally more tell than ask.
Of course these observations are not absolutes. People are complicated and multi-faceted, but generally speaking women bring a dynamic to engineering that we cannot achieve with men alone. So if you want more young women to take up careers in engineering and technology, you have to make it more friendly and satisfying for them. You have to have positions that allow women to use their brain power and social skills for the maximum benefit. It means a redesign of high-tech opportunities perhaps using concurrent engineering techniques.
I look forward to your comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.