Since 1982, women have earned almost 10 million more college degrees than men. Yet, today, only 11 percent of practicing engineers are women. This is a stunning disparity that is robbing America of innovation, creativity and diverse thinking, and most women of the higher salaries available in the engineering field, according to a recent statement by the International Society of Automation (ISA).

ISA and its umbrella organization, The Automation Federation, support initiatives that encourage girls and young women to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

One of these initiatives is Girl Day, an annual celebration of girls’ interests and aptitude in STEM education and potential in STEM-related career fields. While Girl Day—which this year will be recognized on Feb. 26—brings with it varied opportunities for single-day events and activities across the U.S., it represents a much broader, sustained effort, according to the ISA.

Girl Day, one of many programs sponsored by DiscoverE (formerly the National Engineers Week Foundation), is designed to spur national awareness around the importance of attracting more females to engineering and automation, and inspire more personal and community-based involvement in introducing girls to the marvels and excitement of STEM learning.

“Girl Day is an opportunity for ISA and Automation Federation members, as well as other engineers and automation professionals, to make a difference in a girl’s life by showing her the road to a rewarding and engaging career,” says Peggie W. Koon, Ph.D., the 2014 ISA President and 2015 Chair of the Automation Federation who has more than 25 years of experience as an automation professional and executive. “As professionals in the field, we can share our own personal stories of exploration, discovery and accomplishment.”

Drawing on her own personal and professional experiences, Koon encourages engineers and automation professionals to:

  1. Provide support and mentoring;
  2. Work to counteract stereotypes and misconceptions;
  3. Become more active in your local schools and community

1) Provide support and mentoring

“I grew up in a household of engineers and automation professionals,” Koon says. “Two of my brothers majored in electrical, chemical, and mechanical engineering and the other brother is a physicist. My sister and I watched our brothers pursue exciting STEM careers and followed in their footsteps. They encouraged us to major in STEM fields and to pursue jobs in engineering and automation. They mentored us throughout the entire process. It was important for my sister and me to have this encouraging support system because at the time most of the women we knew, including our older sisters, were pursuing professional careers in the liberal arts.”

Girls and young women, she emphasizes, need and deserve this same level of encouragement and mentoring today, whether it comes from family, friends or advisors.

“The power of example is evident in my family now,” Koon says. “I have a 7-year-old granddaughter who sports her red Goldie Blox hoodie jacket and who owns several of the Goldie Blox engineering building sets, books, and the Goldie Blox action figure. If you ask her, she will tell you her favorite subject in school is math and that she is going to be a director of engineering when she grows up!”

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2) Work to counteract stereotypes and misconceptions

The stereotype that boys are better than girls in math and science often negatively affects girls’ self-confidence in STEM subjects and inhibits their pursuit of advanced STEM learning, according to ISA.

“While president of ISA, I would often receive emails from girls and women who were interested in STEM careers,” Koon says. “Many of them, although they were ‘A’ students, lacked the confidence to pursue a college degree. They also often had little confidence in a workplace that they felt preferred to fill open engineering positions with their male counterparts.

“In every case, I would encourage these women to follow their dreams. Yes, I do believe there are some stereotypes and misconceptions on both sides of the gender equation. And for years, images and messages through the media commonly portrayed engineering and automation as male-dominated fields. I am encouraged, though, that some of the latest promotional spots on television and on the Web feature young women talking about their excitement and the importance of becoming an engineer.

“Regardless, girls and young women need to clearly recognize that they can excel in STEM-related careers and there are equal opportunity positions in STEM fields. Because women address and think about problems differently, we often add a different perspective that can lead to innovative results and greater organizational value.”

3) Become more active in your local schools and community

“To make an impression on young people, we need to go to where they learn and gather,” Koon says. “We must engage with them, most notably, at their schools, but also at community gatherings and events. Contact school administrators and educators about how to start a program or educational event that communicates the value of engineering or automation.”

Make every effort, she says, to utilize interactive technology—such as video games, mobile apps, and social media sites—to capture and maintain interest, and to promote the fun and excitement of STEM learning.

“It’s particularly important to tap into young people’s imagination,” Koon says. “Begin by introducing them to websites, such as Engineer Girl, Girl Day and Goldie Blox. They make it clear that engineering can be fun, exciting and rewarding.”

Begin your involvement by celebrating Girl Day
The ISA says developing or participating in a Girl Day event or activity is a great way to kick off your involvement. Not sure where to start? The Girl Day website has lots of ideas.