In Focus

In Focus features leaders from discipline-specific professional societies discussing the trends in their profession and the opportunities presented to women in engineering and technology. Alma Martinez Fallon, F.SWE, a member of the board of governors of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and a former SWE president (FY03-04), discusses the job market, the challenges, and the prospects for women in mechanical engineering.

When I started my journey in the mechanical engineering profession in the mid-1980s, I imagined that by now at least 50% of mechanical engineers would be women.

Unfortunately, that is not yet the case. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to inspire women to join the mechanical engineering profession. Mechanical engineering is by far the broadest engineering degree, enabling easy access to any global industry market. Several other STEM professions have achieved greater gender balance. It is time for mechanical engineering to achieve the same.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Alma Martinez Fallon

A growing need

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 10% growth in mechanical engineering jobs from 2022 through 2032.¹ And the demand for mechanical engineers associated with global and domestic emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), space technology, electrification, and nuclear and other renewable power may not be included in this projection. So, the opportunities are likely even greater.

McKinsey & Company reports² for example, that the nuclear industry in the United States and Canada provides approximately 130,000 direct and 470,000 indirect jobs. Its analysis suggests that this workforce would need to grow to more than 1 million people — and to more than 5 million globally — to increase capacity to 50 gigawatts per year.

In the “McKinsey Technology Trends Outlook 2023,”³ the firm also predicts growth in the demand for systems engineers and candidates with competencies in maintenance, automotive, and logistics operations. These jobs and emerging technologies provide significant opportunities for women engineers.

An increasing number of companies understand the value of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace and invite women engineers to apply for these opportunities. Fortunately, many businesses and groups, including the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), understand that pursuing diversity in engineering ultimately leads to innovation, profitability, and happier customers; reflects our changing demographics; and is the right thing to do.

Education first

The engineering field, specifically mechanical engineering, offers many opportunities for career and education advancements, growth, and leadership. However, despite being extremely talented in math and science, many women do not pursue these opportunities because of the barriers they continue to face: pay inequity, implicit and explicit bias, work/life balance considerations, and a lack of mentors.

Although some progress has occurred in the percentage of women with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering in the last 30 years, there is still room for improvement. As of 2022, only 17.3% of four-year mechanical engineering degrees were awarded to women. If we are to meet the future demand for mechanical engineers, it is imperative that we attract women to this field.

To address this issue, ASME is working to double the number of women mechanical engineering graduates from the roughly 17% mentioned above to 35% by 2030. With help from the National Science Foundation (NSF), ASME hosted the Increasing Women in Mechanical Engineering conference in 2021 and 2022. The purpose of these conferences was to engage academia, industry, and nonprofit engineering communities and provide a platform to examine demonstrated approaches, activities, and implementation strategies to increase the number of women graduating and working in the mechanical engineering field. Overall, more than 800 people attended both conferences, and 94% of the attendees reported a strong satisfaction with them.

Aerospace engineer Aprille Ericsson, Ph.D., from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and Sonya Smith, Ph.D., a mechanical engineering professor and director of the atmospheric science program at Howard University, and current chair of the ASME Foundation, served as keynote speakers in 2021 and 2022, respectively. (Dr. Ericsson has since been named an assistant secretary of defense for science and technology at the Department of Defense.) Representatives from the Society of Women Engineers helped to develop and implement the conferences. The most popular topics included how to increase the number of women mechanical engineering graduates, women of color in mechanical engineering, leveraging the power of professional societies, and a vision for the future in 2030.

These conferences not only raised awareness and understanding that women are underrepresented in mechanical engineering, but also assembled stakeholders to learn strategies that successful universities and companies are using to recruit and retain women. In addition, the conferences helped inform and develop hiring managers, engineering deans of universities, and faculty.

Since the underrepresentation of women in mechanical engineering is a worldwide issue, ASME plans to expand this conference to a multiday global event with more hands-on workshops, panel discussions, and networking opportunities.

Active outreach

Meanwhile, the ASME Foundation, the philanthropic arm of ASME, continues its Campaign for Next Generation Engineers to support a scalable arc of programs that enhance learning at every stage. Its ASME INSPIRE offers a suite of K–12 engineering education programs that bring real-world stories and related STEM experiences into classrooms, infusing the optimism, empathy, and creativity that are vital to truly opening the door to “thinking like an engineer.”

Collectively, these ASME Foundation programs provide engineering education content and experiences to students who have been historically underrepresented in STEM. Among attendees, 46% were young girls; 61% identified as Black, Indigenous, and/or students of color; and 80% attended schools qualified for Title 1 federal funding.

The ASME Foundation is also advancing equity in engineering by providing young, diverse engineers access to leading-edge training, networking, and professional resources leading to more meaningful careers in management and executive positions as engineers. In addition to engineering scholarships, ASME’s FutureME Career Engagement Center, HBCU and Community College Engineering Pathways, and academic and federal government fellowships provide more possibilities for women and underrepresented groups to join the engineering community, enjoy successful careers, and make a positive impact on the world.

In my more than 30 years at Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, I saw a growth rate in women in mechanical engineering similar to the data shared above. Despite not achieving gender balance, many women mechanical engineers rose to senior management, including the division president position. I was hired as an associate engineer and progressed from engineering supervisor and middle management to director of supply chain procurement. I retired as corporate director of strategic planning at the company.

Now, I am working with ASME and SWE to change the prospects for the next generation of women so they can become mechanical engineers and assume leadership roles in any number of established and emerging technologies. We have the chance to make up for lost time and encourage more women to realize their potential in mechanical engineering.


Alma Martinez Fallon, F.SWE, is a senior management consultant with decades of experience in engineering management, manufacturing, supply chain management, and corporate strategies. She is currently a member at large on the board of governors of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), an ASME fellow, past president of the Society of Women Engineers, and a SWE Fellow.


References
1 “Occupational Outlook Handbook, Mechanical Engineers,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
2 “Yes, Nuclear Can Help Answer the Climate and Energy Security Challenge,” McKinsey & Company, May 22, 2023.
3 “McKinsey Technology Trends Outlook 2023,” McKinsey & Company, July 20, 2023.

 

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