As an engineer, Lina Nilsson has a knack for solving problems, and there’s one in particular that she’s determined to crack: attracting more women to her field.
Nilsson currently works at Enlitic, a machine learning company that automates medical decision-making, but the biomedical engineer first made her mark in academia, where she served as innovation director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley. In 2013, MIT Technology Review named her one of 35 innovators under 35 for her work as co-founder of Tekla Labs, a Berkeley engineering collective.
This spring, Nilsson wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times titled, “How to Attract Female Engineers.” In it, she opens with a few stark facts: “At Apple, 20% of tech jobs are held by women and at Google only 17%. Across the country, about 14% of engineers in the workforce are women…I look at those numbers with despair.”
I sat down with Nilsson to talk about how some educational programs that have successfully attracted large number of female engineers, where in the pipeline we lose the most women, and why we shouldn’t fear “pink engineering.”
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can hear our entire conversation on Inflection Point.
Fortune: We know the number of women in engineering programs are typically very low, but the program at the Blum Center attracted 50% women. Why was it so successful?
Lina Nilsson: It was successful because of the branding and rationale of the program. The program is called development engineering and the purpose is to create engineering solutions for the betterment of society. There was no special component of the program that was about attracting women or drawing them in. It’s something that happened by accident, and I think that’s part of why it was so powerful to me.
You wrote in your New York Times piece that if the content of the work itself is made more societally meaningful, women will enroll in droves. Reports from other universities corroborated this.
That’s right. We contacted universities all over the United States, and every single one that replied was seeing the exact same trend that we were—that is approximately doubling in the number of females enrolling in programs.
The idea here is that we need to show what the societal impacts are of engineering. We need to make the meaning of engineering work explicit to students. Some of it is more clearly beneficial to society than others — building bridges, creating new ways to communicate with your phone, etc. That’s not always clear when you’re 18 and you’re picking where you’re going to go to college. I’m not really advocating for just a special category of humanitarian or development engineering, although that’s where we saw these trends initially. What I’m advocating for is that we incorporate the societal benefits of all engineering into curricula so that students who are motivated by these benefits are also encouraged to apply and to take part and to be engineers.
I’m not an engineer, have never taken an engineering class and ran screaming from calculus… Can you explain some of the benefits of being an engineer? What does engineering do for society?
Everyone uses engineering products every day, right? Probably a lot of listeners are on their smartphones right now or they’re using navigation systems in their cars. Engineering is all around us all the time. It’s almost so ubiquitous that we don’t even think about it. In the program at UC Berkeley, development engineering and some of the other programs I contacted, it’s also about having a global view about medical solutions to neglected disease, about off-grid energy options in parts of Africa, and water solutions in parts of Asia that will probably face huge waters shortages in the coming decades.
So you argue that putting engineering in that context helps make it more interesting?
That’s right. And I think I’m not just arguing it—there’s evidence of that from all these different programs across the U.S.
You got a lot of mail after writing the op-ed about making engineering more meaningful, and you discovered a pattern in how the writers addressed you. Could you share that with us?
I got a lot of mail, lots and lots of mail. In being an engineer, I tried to come up with a shortcut to understand it all and save myself a little bit of time. I discovered there was a pattern in the salutation. Some people called me Professor Nilsson. Others addressed me as Dr. Nilsson and some people addressed me as Ms. Nilsson. If the person said, “Dear Professor Nilsson,” in all cases except one, they were very positive about the article. If they said, “Dr. Nilsson,” it could go either way. Everyone who started with “Ms. Nilsson” was negative. Then, there were some “Hey Ladies” and I’ll let the listener guess if they were positive or negative. It was actually a surprising number of male engineers who were very negative about the idea of female engineers—a lot of engineers uncomfortable with the idea that we were discussing gender in the context of engineering.
Will you read a couple of the letters?
Sure. Here we go: “I guess what I don’t understand is why does it matter how many women are engineers. Why are so many people so obsessed toward this kind of stuff? Maybe, just maybe, the male brain is better at engineering than the female brain. That to me is the obvious answer, but common sense seems to have disappeared from our society decades ago.”
I was surprised by the number of people who questioned the value of female participation. Engineering is a field that’s about solving problems. You can only solve problems that you understand and I would like to think that we want to solve everyone’s problems, not just problems identified by a small segment of society. That’s not just about women and men. It’s about having all kinds of people do engineering: introverts, extroverts, people from cities, from rural villages, from the U.S., from all over the world. I think this idea that we can just have one type of person and have them come up with all of the solutions to problems they’ve never encountered themselves firsthand is a bit absurd.
I understand that some of the comments called your approach “pink engineering,” and they use that as an insult. What do you think that means?
I think there was fear around the idea that I was advocating for a kind of engineering that’s less serious, somehow, that it’s not real engineering if it’s being done by being females — it’s some subcategory that’s siloed. First of all, that’s totally off base, but even if it wasn’t, I think it’s curious that we are so afraid of the idea that some engineering should be female-oriented. There’s a lot of engineering startups here in Silicon Valley that solve problems.
I was thinking about this question about how to attract female engineers, or how to attract women to anything. One of the big pushes now is to teach girls to code. It seems to me that many of the coding programs for girls available on the Internet are about designing jewelry. Why does coding have to be associated with jewelry to get a girl interested?
There are definitely programs that try very hard not to do that and to make sure that there are all kinds of problems to solve. I don’t think we should avoid the bracelet problem. I think they can be included as well, but we shouldn’t have some sort of equation that states girls equals bracelet engineering.
I don’t know to what extent it’s innate that women are less likely to be attracted to engineering. If you look globally, that is certainly not the case. In Saudi Arabia, for example, 45% of computer scientists are female. Malaysia, 50%, so it’s not something that’s universally true. It’s also not something that’s true over time. In the United States, in the mid ’80s, nearly 40% of computer science students were female. It’s a moment in time now that it’s less than 20%, but it’s not something that’s true over geography or over time.
In the U.S., about 20% of undergraduate and graduate engineering students are female, but only 14% of engineers in the workforce are women. Something is causing them to leave. What do you think needs to change from that standpoint?
There’s this concept of a ‘leaky pipeline,’ where women continuously drop out of computer science and engineering more generally. That’s not actually what the data shows. There are two big dropout areas. One is between high school and college. In high school, girls and boys take about the same number of science and math classes. They do equally well, but for some reason, the girls still don’t pick those majors in college, so about half of them drop out. Then, again, like you mentioned through college and PhD, all levels of education, women stay in at 20%. Then there is this 50% drop between college and career. Those are the big punctures in the pipeline.
So it’s not that female engineers are dropping out once they’ve entered the workforce. It’s that they aren’t entering the workforce as engineers in the first place?
Women are half as likely as men to actually get into an engineering career, but women are twice as likely to drop out of an engineering career. That means 40% to 60% of women will not stay for a full work life in engineering, but they will go and do something totally different.
What has been your experience as a woman in the field of engineering?
Like many other women engineers, there have been moments—you’re in a meeting and you’re always the one asked to take notes or order lunch and so on—but I’ve had great support from both male and female colleagues. However, it is actually a big point for me that our policies around engaging women in engineering shouldn’t be about personal anecdotes. As we try to solve this, it shouldn’t be about personal experience of the people around the table. It should be about what’s really working when you look at the data and large numbers.
What’s the best advice about having a career in engineering that you’ve ever received?
Be bold and be bold in the unexpected. Everything is very uncertain, and that’s exactly what calms me down. Feel good about the opportunities and the unknowns that come with embarking on a new career. I also highly recommend that young people interested in engineering careers read Solving Problems That Matter by Khanjan Mehta.
Lauren Schiller is the host of Inflection Point, where she has conversations with women changing the status quo. Inflection Point is broadcast on public radio stations from KALW in San Francisco, podcast on iTunes, and online at inflectionpointradio.org. The above article is an edited and condensed version of the broadcast interview. Click here to listen to the full audio.