For two of my colleagues and me, our motivation to study electrical engineering focused on our desire to use technology to positively impact everyday lives. However, during our undergraduate studies, the societal benefits of some specialization areas of electrical engineering were not always evident.
“Most of the classes were focused on the theoretical side of concepts while spending too little or no time bringing those concepts back to real-world applications,” said Maribel Torres-Velázquez, one of my colleagues, who is currently a PhD candidate in the Biomedical Engineering Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
I personally share Torres-Velázquez’s experience, and Dr. Keisha Y. Castillo-Torres – another of my colleagues, who is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Florida – does too. “In some classes, societal benefits were introduced as examples, but most of the time these were not evident,” added Dr. Castillo-Torres.
This experience is not unique to us.
In fact, based on a study conducted by Susan S. Silbey, a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology and Professor of Behavioral and Policy Sciences in the Sloan School of Management at MIT, the social benefits of an engineering career can influence a woman’s decision to stay or leave the career. Contrary to men, one of the critical reasons why women leave engineering careers is because “they saw only lip service offered toward improving society.”
Women tend to prefer careers that have a very apparent and positive impact on society and the world. This was highlighted in an article published on IEEE Spectrum by Erico Guizzo expressing the following ideas regarding why there is a gender gap in electrical engineering: (1) there is a problem of perception, and (2) the electrical engineers are not sending a compelling message about the societal contributions of the profession.
For my colleagues and me, seeing and understanding the societal benefits of our work at an early stage in our undergraduate career played a key role in motivating us to pursue a graduate career.
“I gained insights into the 'bigger picture' in terms of societal benefits once I started participating in undergraduate research,” said Dr. Castillo-Torres. “Understanding how my work could benefit society and individuals made a difference in my career and motivated me to continue working on most (or all) of the projects I was involved in (as an undergraduate student, a graduate student, and as a post-doc).”
As an electrical engineer, Torres-Velázquez also gained the most insights into the societal impact of her work through undergraduate research, summer internships, and mentoring experiences. “It was absolutely amazing for me to discover that my knowledge/skills in signal and image processing could be used to better understand and treat neurological diseases,” she added. “I was primarily motivated by my uncle’s neurological condition, but with time it became more than that; I did not want to help improve just one person’s quality of life but as many as possible. Understanding the societal benefits of the work of an electrical engineer motivated me to pursue a PhD and shaped my long-term professional goals.”
Emphasizing, in classrooms or mentoring experiences, how the different specialization areas of electrical engineering positively impact peoples’ lives can significantly influence individuals’ perception of this career, especially for women.
Both Torres-Velázquez and Dr. Castillo-Torres agreed that their initial perspectives of the field were centered on the areas and applications of electronics and power systems. “I think my perspective first changed during my undergraduate career when I understood that as an electrical engineer, I could design and develop sensors and devices that could impact the quality of life of individuals and society in general,” said Dr. Castillo-Torres. “During my graduate career, I internalized the infinite possibilities of the electrical engineering field and how it can merge with other disciplines (from agriculture to medicine and from the 'nanoworld' to the 'macroworld').”
Torres-Velázquez shared that her undergraduate and graduate experiences have changed her perspective of the field by providing her with the knowledge/skills necessary to find electrical engineering concepts/applications everywhere she looks. “It is honestly amazing!” she said. “Something that really helped me solidify my perspective of the profession was expanding my networking circle. It allowed me to get familiarized with the amazing work performed by colleagues in what could be seen like completely different disciplines.”
Like my colleagues, seeing electrical engineers working in all areas, from environmental to biomedical applications, has played a key role in shaping my perspective of what an electrical engineer looks like. For me, this has even shaped part of my mentoring style.
“What is it that you care about? What calls your attention? Is it music? Is it medical, environmental, or societal problems?” I always try to ask when motivating girls and women to pursue a career in electrical engineering. I am interested in knowing what they care about and share how electrical engineering can impact those areas of their interest.
Of course, not all women are driven by the same motivations, in this case, the applications of the work. Some are very inspired and motivated by advancing technical areas. However, I am sure anyone will be glad to understand how their work will impact the lives of others. In the end, as responsible engineers, this is something we should ask ourselves and teach our students to do so: How will my work impact the world?