Engineering and the Human Spirit
The campus of Smith College is one of the most pleasant places
in the world to be on a sunny afternoon. The setting is so
lovely, the academic atmosphere so tranquil, that when I first
arrived here, I was totally captivated. The spell of the place,
however, made me uneasy about my mission, which was to convince
a few of the students at this premier, all female liberal arts
college that they ought to become engineers. The mission, as it
turned out, was destined to fail.
So began an article by Samuel C. Florman, author of The
Existential Pleasures of Engineering, published in
Harper's magazine in 1978. Nationally, the interest of
women in engineering has not improved significantly since then. Only
1 percent of college graduates are women who have studied
engineering. Only 20 percent of all undergraduate engineering majors
are women. And only 6 percent of engineering professors are women.
"Look to your left and look to your right; one of these
students will not be with you at graduation." This has been the
common prologue to the academic career of many engineering hopefuls.
In part as a result of this sieving process, we now have a situation
where the United States doesn't educate enough engineers to meet its
needs. In 2002, U.S. institutions of higher learning graduated
approximately 69,000 engineers, yet we were nevertheless forced to
attract some 25,000 more from other countries—creating a
technological brain drain from many nations that can ill afford it.
Although forecasts for the future are somewhat uncertain (and some
even question the need to educate more engineers), it is certain
that our engineering workforce needs more diversity. In contrast
with medicine and law, the engineering profession remains "pale
and male," with white men making up 90 percent of practicing engineers.
Greater diversity would help, for example, to overcome the
bad-driver syndrome. Let me explain: Not so many years ago, women
were accused, stereotypically, of being bad drivers. Why? Because
cars were designed by men, for men—indeed, for your average
5-foot-10-inch man. Women, who are usually shorter, often could not
see the four corners of the car from the driver’s seat, which
may have contributed to countless numbers of fender-benders. This
commonplace example illustrates how some diversity at the design
table might help to avoid bad—even dangerous—designs.