OGDEN — For young women considering a career in engineering, Kathleen Kramer has some straight advice: “truthfully, just do it.”
As a professor of electrical engineering at the University of San Diego, she sees her field’s gender gap firsthand. Women make up less than 20 percent of undergraduates enrolled in engineering programs. That disparity has persisted since 2002.
Once women wrap up college and enter technical fields, the environment isn’t always welcoming. Nobel laureates make sexist claims about women in the lab. Female CEOs sue their former Silicon Valley firms for discrimination. Most recently, the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag has surfaced to break stereotypes about who belongs in the tech field.
But Kramer is proof that women can rise to the top in technical industries and stand out for their achievements. She’s authored or co-authored over 100 papers. She researches mind-boggling things like drone sensors and aerospace electronics. She’s also director-elect of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Region 6, which covers six Western states, including Utah.
At a recent sustainable technology conference at Weber State University, Kramer spoke to the Standard-Examiner about bringing more women into science and technology. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Day to day working in your field, is it plainly obvious that women are underrepresented in engineering?
There’s no question. Statistically, there’s a lot of talk about women being broadly underrepresented in “STEM,” meaning science, tech, engineering and math. Most people don’t realize, though, in biology fields women are actually in the majority, even including PhDs received.
Engineering and computer science are sort of the last holdouts where women are severely unrepresented. That’s particularly true in electrical and computer engineering.
Nationwide, women represent around 19 percent of engineers. But we’re more like 10 percent in electrical and computer engineering. So if you were going into civil engineering, you’d see women all over the place.
You go into my field, aerospace electronic systems, and it’s me, maybe a grad student and 48 men. That would be typical.
Why do you think there’s such a persistent gender gap in engineering?
The studies say it starts in junior high and middle school. There aren’t a lot of role models for young girls. But there’s also something else going on. It’s about making the profession more appealing to women and helping them see the tremendous impact they can have. By changing technology, you change the world.
That’s part of what I love about what I’m doing with IEEE. When I go to meetings, one of the reasons they’re excited to see me is also that I’m a professor, I have a PhD and I have these achievements, but it’s certainly not lost on me that it’s also because I’m the woman in the room. And to see a woman in the room is important. IEEE is very supportive of that.
Do you ever feel like you’re treated differently as a woman in your field?
Oh, yeah. It’s just human nature that you respond to what you see in a person. People have different expectations for women, for people of different races and ethnicities and for people with different college majors. That impacts how they treat you. So being a woman in engineering is sometimes like wearing a red dress to every meeting.
But honestly, I never am one to say I feel like nobody noticed I was there, or that I feel like other people steal my suggestions. That never happens.
What I have noticed is that I get asked, even though I’m pretty senior in the field, “where did you go to school?” And a male colleague will say, “gosh, no one has asked me where I went to school in 20 years.” But I get asked that probably about once a week.
I’ll also get asked, “how old are you?” But I don’t consider that a hostile question. If you’re from an underrepresented demographic, you’re going to stick out. It will make people curious and they’ll wonder about you.
If you’re a woman or a minority or someone unexpected, it really pays off to have strong credentials because people will ask you about them more.
What sparked your interest in electrical engineering?
I have a typical storyline that you’ll hear from many women in engineering. I have a father who’s an engineer. He said after his children went to college, they’d be employed. He said, “You can major in engineering, science, math or accounting. Anything else is called a second major hobby.”
Any barriers you see your own female students facing when they get started in this field?
There’s tremendous opportunity for them — there’s no question on the amount of opportunity. But what we’ve observed in terms of retaining women in engineering is that female students tend to be less willing to take C grades than male students. They need that reassurance of high grades so they feel like they should be there.
But Cs get degrees. They shouldn’t be your ambition, but they’ll get you the degree. You don’t need a 4.0 to be a good engineer.
Students should pick majors that provide the greatest opportunities. And many opportunities are available in technical fields. I also have students that go on to law school, get an MBA or do all kinds of interesting things. The highest rate of acceptance among those graduate-level programs if from engineering majors.