While the field of engineering as a whole is male-dominated, biomedical engineering is one area poised to overturn this trend. Women in the United States were awarded only 20% of all engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2015, but in biomedical engineering, 40.9% of degree recipients were women. This is in stark contrast to the more traditional fields of mechanical and electrical engineering where women were awarded just 13.2% and 12.5% of B.S. degrees respectively. This trend toward more women’s participation in biomedical engineering continues at both the master’s and Ph.D, level. In fact, in 2015, biomedical engineering had the highest percentage of female engineering master’s degree recipients in the United States of all engineering disciplines, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.
Why is biomedical engineering attracting so many women? More importantly, what can other specialties learn from this field to increase the number of women entering their fields?
The Draw to BME
At its core, BME is an exciting field that integrates medicine and engineering, but what specifically is it about this combination that appeals to women more than other engineering disciplines? One of the most commonly reported theories is that women, who enter the field of biomedical engineering, while passionate about math and science, ultimately want to help improve the lives of others. As Lina Nilsson, Innovation Director at the Blum Center for Developing Economies at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in The New York Times in 2015, “Women seem to be drawn to engineering projects that attempt to achieve societal good.” She and her colleagues found that when universities offer humanitarian-centered opportunities, women are more likely to participate. For example, the D-Lab at MIT “focuses on developing ‘technologies that improve the lives of people living in poverty’” and more than 74% of the students involved are women, according to Nilsson. While studies have shown that women are more philanthropic than men, the desire to help others can lead both men and women into many different career paths outside of BME . Nilsson’s views did receive strong opposition by some women in engineering, most notably an op-ed in The News-Gazette of East Illinois, in which Shannon Lybarger, an electrical engineer who has implemented several Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings projects, stated: “I like solving practical problems… Don’t belittle women by thinking we can only work in jobs that fill our hearts and souls.” Categorizing all women in biomedical engineering as wanting a career that contributes to society may not resonate with all women and in fact downplays their intellectual curiosity and technical ability, many believe.
Nozomi Nishimura, an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Cornell University, believes that the collaborative nature of the field and its relative novelty play a large role (Figure 1, right). “The fact that biomedical engineering is a new field and is inherently multidisciplinary seems to also produce a culture that is more inclusive,” she says. “Biomedical engineers must interface with “traditional” engineers, biologists, physicians, patients; so I like to think that BME has more of an appreciation of diverse points of view.” The collaborative nature of BME may also play a role as collaborative working styles are more common to women, as demonstrated by studies showing that women generally choose work environments in which success is defined by a team versus an individual’s efforts .
Another reason women are being drawn to BME is its job security both in and outside the field of engineering. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook for architecture and engineering occupations, the number of jobs in BME is projected to increase by 23% from 2014 to 2024. Other engineering disciplines such as mechanical, chemical, and electrical engineering are only expected to grow between 0-5%. With an average salary of US$86,000 in 2015 for a BS in BME, women looking for an intellectually and financially rewarding career with job security are increasingly turning to BME. When asked why she picked biomedical engineering, Shubhra Rastogi, a sophomore at Drexel University, says that financial security was a factor (Figure 2, right). “I originally wanted to do biomedical sciences but when I heard that BME people do work like brain-machine interfaces, or drug delivery systems, that just sounded so much more interesting than just majoring in another science—plus the pay was better as an engineer.” For those who choose to leave engineering, a background in BME also provides an entrée to other fields such as medicine, pharmaceuticals, finance, and consulting. According to Rachel Wang, BS/MS in BME and a MBA student at Harvard Business School, “I have found that employers in the healthcare industry understand the value of a BME degree. I not only know how to design and engineer a great product, but it also shows my passion for bringing that product to patients” (Figure 3, lower right).
Meanwhile, as BME is considered flexible, lucrative, and human, the engineering disciplines outside BME have traditionally been portrayed as rigid, quantitative fields reserved only for people who love math and science. The inspirational, big-picture aspect of many engineering projects can often get lost in translation. A study by the National Academy of Engineering found that the public image of engineering has been built on the perceived preparation required to enter the engineering field, and recommends a new effort to include students of all backgrounds by emphasizing the hands-on ways that engineering can make a difference in people’s lives.
Historical Context Plays a Role
According to research by Claudia Goldin, the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University and director of the National Bureau of Economic Research Development (NBER), in the 1980s the meaning of college for American women was undergoing a historical shift. College was transforming into an opportunity for women to become equal to their male counterparts, with college serving as a natural next step in building their own life-long careers rather than a means to an income until starting a family . This historical shift coincided with a rise in the number of undergraduate biomedical engineering programs in the late 1970s.
The field’s relatively recent emergence also prevented it from inheriting the traditional stereotypes of engineering. The common perception of an engineer as a man, working by himself, tinkering with a machine, is completely subverted in biomedical engineering, where there is no well-established stereotype. Nishimura, when asked to describe the typical biomedical engineer, responded: “It is wonderful to me that nothing comes to mind.”
How Women in BME are Shaping the Field’s Direction and Contributions
As more women enter the field of BME, it is inevitable that their presence helps to change and shape the direction of the field. According to Nishimura, how they do this is a topic linked to why there is a need for more diversity in the STEM fields.
“A diverse workforce will be able to identify more opportunities, be more flexible and recruit a broader range of resources (both in engineering and otherwise) than one that is exclusive and limited,” she says. “There are tremendous challenges ahead of us in BME and we need as many different kinds of ideas and approaches as we can get. Analogous to an ecosystem, the more varied and diverse our perspectives and experiences, the better we will be able to address the unpredictable needs of the future. We never know what technical, societal or personal challenges biomedical engineers might encounter.”
Women’s involvement in BME has inherently introduced the female perspective in research studies, product development, and key funding decisions. When it’s lacking, it shows. An initiative at Stanford University called Gender Innovations provided case studies highlighting the negative consequences of gender bias in research studies and innovation, including drug trials that failed to uncover the “greater health risks for women”; and seat belts in automobiles that were not designed for pregnant women, resulting in fetal death as the “leading cause of … death related to maternal trauma.” It wasn’t until 2014 that the NIH, the primary U.S. agency responsible for health-related research, announced through a comment in Nature, the world’s most cited scientific journal, that they would start to require that studies be conducted in female lab animals and female tissues and cells, and to consider sex as a variable in experiment design and analysis.
“BME can potentially have an impact in so many different contexts, it is difficult for any of us to predict what combination of skills we may need,” says Nishimura. “ I don’t think that gender or sex differences predict what kind of biomedical engineer a person will become and I don’t think it is important. However, an arbitrary constraint on the sort of person that can work in a field will reduce the potential impact of that field. We cannot afford to not recruit and promote from our entire population.”
The continued success of BME in appealing to women is driven by a collective of initiatives. Around the world, both women and men are coming together to create programs that provide mentorship, skill development and inspiration to women of all ages to pursue professions in STEM fields
Many federal efforts have led the way in diversifying STEM. Such as:
- NSF Advance Program – Established in 2001 to “increase the representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers.” Since then, the NSF has funded over $270 million to more than 100 institutions of higher education and STEM-related non-profits.
- NIH Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers – Researches retention methods and best practices for keeping women on the engineering track.
Professional societies worked to cultivate communities of women engineers in industry, academia, and students together.
- Society of Women Engineers (SWE) – A global society founded in 1950 with the mission to “stimulate women to achieve full potential in careers as engineers and leaders.” Each year its annual conference is attended by over 20,000 women engineers at all stages of their careers.
- Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE) – The IEEE’s Women in Engineering group is one of the largest international professional organizations dedicated to helping women engineers and scientists to pursue their academic interests in engineering.
- Scientista Foundation – The largest network of campus women across STEM disciplines, Scientista serves to connect all communities of women in STEM at campuses across the nation.
There are also many organizations that target specific age groups of women in an effort to build a sustainable, strong pipeline of female engineers for the future. Examples include:
- EngineerGirl.org. – An initiative by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), sponsored by Oracle, the Kenan Institute at North Carolina State University, and Chevron. This website provides resources for girls interested in learning more about engineering.
- Perry Initiative – Focused on building the pipeline for women in engineering and orthopedic surgery through workshops focused on using power tools and biomechanics to repair fractured bones.
- #ILookLikeAnEngineer – A grassroots effort in which women engineers post pictures of themselves at work or in everyday life with a caption of their job title. A search of this hashtag on Twitter yields hundreds of pictures of women in engineering all across the globe.
- SWE K-12 Outreach – University SWE chapters hold technical workshops throughout the year focused on inspiring girls to pursue engineering in the future.
Next Steps for BME: What We Can Do
BME has emerged as an engineering discipline that leads others in appealing to women engineers. However, there are steps that everyone can take to make BME, and indeed all engineering, a more inclusive field.
Students and teaching assistants can play a key role in creating an academic environment that motivates female students to ask questions, credit and champion their peers on good ideas and ask for help when challenges are faced. Teaching assistants in particular can help create project teams more evenly distributed between genders and bring attention to inspiring female role-models in STEM.
Faculty members can play an active role in supporting women in engineering. Dr. Alissa Morss Clyne, Associate Professor in the College of Engineering at Drexel University and faculty advisor to Drexel’s Society of Women Engineers chapter (Figure 4, right), recommends including male engineering faculty in efforts to encourage young female engineers and promoting diversity. “Often when there is a diversity event, the female engineers are the only ones who are asked to participate. It is just as important to involve men in these events, both so that the men can better understand issues facing female engineers and so the young female engineers know that the men are also supportive of their careers.”
Parents can encourage their children to participate in STEM learning opportunities for early career exploration and exposure says Dannielle Solomon Figueroa Ph.D., a senior scientist in vaccine commercialization at Merck & Co. (Figure 5, below) and mother of two daughters, ages 5 and 2. “The best advice I would give would be regular engagement in STEM activities at home and exposure to female STEM mentors. Simple at-home projects like building bridges, making homemade Play-Doh or polymers, and growing plants have allowed us to engage our daughters in STEM, while also explaining basic engineering or biology concepts through fun activities.” Figueroa also recommends reaching out to various professional societies for finding local activities. The Connectory provides the most comprehensive directory of STEM learning programs across the nation.
Figueroa also emphasizes the importance of surrounding your children with positive role models. “Another major step towards increasing girls’ interest in STEM, or at least validating it, is seeing adult woman engaged in STEM careers. We’ve tried to build a world where our daughters see women, and specifically women of color, engaging in science regularly. The net effect is that they think women doing science is normal!”
Women in STEM can share their stories. Dr. Morss Clyne encourages female engineers to openly discuss challenges and failures with women who are pursuing engineering careers. “Often we see women who are successful, and we imagine that they reached that position because they were always successful. The truth is that we all face challenges each day, and often the difference between success and failure is in perseverance. When young female engineers see that even very successful people have experienced failure, they are more confident in their own ability to overcome what at first can seem like an insurmountable challenge.”
- Mesch, D., et al., Gender Differences in Charitable Giving. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing 2011. 16(4): p. 342-355.
- Kuhn, P. and M.-C. Villeval, Are Women More Attracted to Cooperation than Men? National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), 2013: p. Working Paper No. 19277.
- Goldin, C., The Meaning of College in the Lives of American Women: The Past One-Hundred Years. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), 1992 p. Working Paper No. 4099.