The simplest way to get more women interested in engineering jobs

Marissa MayerREUTERS/Ruben SprichYahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was Google’s first female engineer.

Since it was published on Monday, a New York Times op-ed on how to attract female engineers has been one of the most emailed and tweeted articles on the publication’s website.

In the story, Lina Nilsson, who has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, suggests that there’s one “obvious” — if overlooked — way to get more women interested in this field.

Women are more likely to pursue careers in engineering when the work makes a social impact, says Nilsson, innovation director at the Blum Center for Developing Economies at the University of California, Berkeley.

In the US, while at least 80% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering are awarded to men, programs that encourage students to do societally meaningful work typically enroll equal numbers of men and women (and sometimes more women than men).

When I reached out to Nilsson via email, she told me the response to the article struck more of a nerve than she anticipated.

Perhaps that’s because the strategy she proposes is something that will ultimately benefit everyone. In the article, Nilsson mentions that none of the programs she cites were designed to attract female engineers — just engineers interested in social change.

Connecting the social impact that engineering jobs can have may even be more effective (and less expensive) than efforts to recruit and mentor women.

“It may be about reframing the goals of engineering research and curriculums to be more relevant to societal needs,” writes Nilsson. “It is not just about gender equity — it is about doing better engineering for us all.”

Nilsson also suspects that pairing engineering research with social change is a way to increase diversity more broadly. In the U.C. Berkeley program, she’s seen unusually high interest from underrepresented minorities.

At a time when many companies are thinking hard about how to increase the diversity of their workforce, Nilsson’s is an elegant potential solution. Making a positive impact on the world is something that everyone — no matter their background — can get behind.

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