Ethyl Ann Hansen joined the California DOT (Caltrans) in the 1960s, at a time when the position most commonly held by women at the agency was secretary. Hansen, on the other hand, was an engineer. She spent her career improving transportation in the San Francisco Bay area and was the first woman to serve as deputy district director for Caltrans at a time when finding a female engineer—let alone one in a leadership position—was rare.
Forty years later, the number of women in engineering has increased, but you're still far more likely to find a “mister” in a civil engineering position than a “miss.” One far-reaching coalition is looking to narrow the gender gap.
Members of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) had noted the disparity and formed a task force, but it wasn't until Patricia D. Galloway, P.E., became the association's first female president in 2003 that the group took action and formed the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project (EWEP), which seeks to attract more women into the field.
Led by the ASCE, American Association of Engineering Societies, and the Boston-based WGBH Educational Foundation, the coalition conducted research into why more women don't consider becoming engineers. Their findings, released in an April 2005 report, discovered that the divide appears early—school-age girls are not exposed to engineering, and they and the people that influence them (such as teachers, counselors, and parents) lack understanding and awareness as to what engineering entails and do not know of the broad range of possibilities afforded by a career in the field.
The group is going beyond their research and taking active steps to change that. One way is through the release of Changing Our World: True Stories of Women Engineers. Written by Sybil Hatch, P.E., it shares the stories of women who have significantly impacted the world through their work as transportation, civil, automotive, electrical, and environmental engineers.
One of the women featured is Marsha Anderson Bomar, P.E., president of Atlanta-based Streetsmarts. She and her firm orchestrated a transportation plan that kept Atlanta's traffic from getting snarled when millions of visitors arrived for the 1996 games and gathered at Centennial Olympic Park. “It has been an enormous success, hosting hundreds of thousands of visitors post-Olympics on a ongoing basis,” said Bomar.
She and dozens of other women share their stories in the book, which was published in February. It is available for sale through the association's Web site, but the coalition also is distributing thousands of copies to high school counselors across the country so they can hear the stories and share them with girls looking for career inspiration.
“We have been trying to attract women into the profession for the last 30-plus years, and I think the efforts have been good, but not consolidated,” said Hatch. “With this coalition and project, it is really an exciting time—a turning point in the whole history of engineering.”
For more information about the book or the EWEP, visit www.engineeringwomen.org.