Women in STEM and Biomedical Engineering

November 3, 2014

Francesca Jarrett

If we want to understand how to increase the number of women in tech occupations such as computer science and engineering, we should look at biomedical engineering. While the number of female computer science graduates is declining at an alarming rate (only 18% of US computer science graduates are women, down from 37% in 1985 – a 64% decline), female biomedical engineering graduates are holding steady at 39%, much higher than most engineering fields and second only to environmental engineering (44%).

The discussion surrounding why so few women are choosing to major in tech has revealed that the problem is subtle and multifaceted. As a female high school senior who is deciding what to study in college and who spent the summer interning as a programmer at a Silicon Valley startup, I definitely agree with the many writers who have blamed the “brogrammer” culture of Silicon Valley.

But biomedical engineering’s success in attracting and retaining females points to another aspect of the problem – one that rings very true to me. Biomedical engineering offers the ability to work in a profession that strives to improve the quality of people’s lives in very real, concrete ways. After my experience at the startup, I now know that computer science can also be a very direct way to change the world and, in fact, in the future, knowledge of programming is only going to be more necessary to every profession, even the “helping professions.”

Thus, I agree with Dr. Maria Klawe and the Carnegie Mellon study that a fundamental reason why it is difficult to convince women to study computer science is marketing: unlike biomedical engineering, computer science doesn’t seem like an opportunity to work on deep and cutting-edge topics, to problem solve or, most of all, to change lives. If computer science can learn to market itself more like biomedical engineering, I believe it will attract both more women and more creative, interesting people who are engaged with their communities.

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