Women, Engineers, and Computing in the Climate Equation

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Climate change presents grand and urgent puzzles for engineers and computer scientists. From designing future mega-cities for minimal energy use and writing software for designing biological systems to improving solar cells and devising safe ways to store carbon dioxide, engineers hold many of the tools needed to shape our future energy mix, food supply, and ability to adapt to a changing climate.

But from college freshmen through working professionals, the fields of engineering and computing are not running at full steam. A lot of women are missing.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London (1839)
Women played a larger role in the computing workforce in generations past. British mathematician Ada Lovelace is credited with writing the instructions for the world’s first computer program and pioneering computing concepts that are still used in programming today.

According to a comprehensive new report released by the nonprofit American Association of University Women, women made up just over one in four computing professionals in the United States in 2013. That’s about the same percentage as in 1960 and significantly lower than even 30 years ago. The ratio is even more skewed for engineering, with women representing fewer than one in six working engineers.

This means a large pool of potential talent is untapped. “We simply can’t ignore the opportunity that gender diversity offers for creativity,” said Londa Schienbinger, a gender science researcher at Stanford University who moderated a panel assembled by AAUW this week.

Report authors Christianne Corbett and Catherine Hill highlight the poster children of Silicon Valley tech: companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter, where in 2014 women made up between 10 percent and 20 percent of all technical employees. But because so many branches of engineering work with natural resources and shape the environmental footprint of our daily lives (how we generate electricity, the way our food is produced, how we move around), the problem of women being underrepresented in computing and engineering becomes part of the climate equation and affects our ability to solve it.

Corbett and Hill have pulled together studies showing that gender imbalance tends to be bad for companies, employees, and users alike. When technical decisions are made in environments where women are dramatically underrepresented, for example, “needs unique to women maybe overlooked.” Recent history offers examples where male-dominated teams failed to account for the needs of female users. As Corbett and Hill note in their report, the earliest airbags in cars were designed to protect adult male bodies and ended up being dangerous for women and children. And female voices were incomprehensible to early voice-recognition systems that had been tuned to the voices of male developers. Just last year, Apple released an app for tracking personal health metrics from sodium intake to blood alcohol content — but it failed to make it possible for women to track their periods.

Credit: United Nations Photo/John Isaac (2005)
Women in Burkina Faso work against an encroaching desert by pounding and terracing ground to control erosion and catch precious rainwater.

When it comes to climate and energy innovations, the stakes for women are especially high. Climate change exacerbates threats to the most vulnerable and least empowered social groups. As the United Nations Development Programconcluded in a 2007 report, climate change is likely to “magnify existing patterns of gender disadvantage,” from women’s historically restricted rights and limited access to resources, to “muted” voices in decision making. As a result, women are likely to be among the groups who suffer most from climate impacts like drought, flood, uncertain rainfall, and extreme storms.

A broad web of factors contribute to the gender gap in engineering and computer science. “We no longer face explicit discrimination,” Schienbinger said. “People today want to do the right thing, we want to be fair.” But unconscious bias persists. As early as age eight, she said, children develop the implicit association between men, math, and technology. And at least one study suggests potential employers systematically underestimate women’s mathematical performance compared with men, which leads to lower-performing men being hired over higher-performing women.

More and better information can counteract this implicit bias. According to the report, employers are less likely to make biased hiring decisions when they have objective information about past performance. Other recommendations for addressing imbalances up and down the ladder include revising introductory computer science courses to emphasize practical applications; fostering connections with role models and mentors; reinforcing the idea in classrooms that engineering skills are learned and practiced rather than innate; and eliminating “undermining behavior” by co-workers and supervisors.

Corbett and Hill rightly emphasize that “not all women are motivated to the same extent by the same goals, and certainly many men prioritize communal values more highly than many women.” Yet multiple studies indicate women on average are more likely than men to say they prefer working with others and having a job with a clear social purpose.

At the same time, research indicates that men and women generally perceive engineering and computing as being relatively solitary work that does not engage with societal and community concerns. As a result, young people who are motivated by “communal goals,” a strong desire to work with other people and contribute to society, are not flocking to their computer science department.

“The stereotype of Silicon Valley is you barely finish college and you start a company, and become fabulously rich,” said panelist Scott McGregor, president and CEO of Broadcom. “Maybe we’re doing ourselves a disservice by not showing that engineers are helping to solve the world’s problems.”

Credit: GlassLab Games
SimCityEDU puts students in the mayor’s seat and challenges them to balance environmental impact, employment needs, and the happiness of city residents.

Might environmental problems offer a gateway to change that perception and put engineering tools in the hands of a much broader swath of the population? It’s already happening at a small scale, said Jessica Lindl, executive director of GlassLab Games, a non-profit developer of educational games. When GameLab brings a SimCity-like game to middle and high schoolers, she said, “By far, the most engaging problem they want to solve is green challenges.” The games spark the realization in players that engineering offers the tools needed to solve a problem that they already feel connected to and passionate about. “Adults are playing that game, too,” she said, “and it’s inspiring them to pick up skills they didn’t know they were interested in.”

Aerospace engineer Aprille Ericsson, who coordinates small business partnerships and technology transfer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, aims to offer a different image when she speaks with students. “As an engineer, I’m here to solve the world’s problems,” she said on the panel this week. “I’m not just putting up a satellite because it’s a fun thing to do. It’s a science need that has an impact to our communities.”

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