Women choose biomedical engineering

December 04, 2001

ARLINGTON, Va., - Biomedical engineering leads all engineering disciplines in the percentage of degrees awarded to women at all levels: bachelor's, master's and doctoral, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.

Thirty-nine percent of all biomedical engineering bachelor's degrees awarded in spring 2000 went to women. Chemical engineering was second with 36 percent of bachelor's degrees to women.

At the master's level, 34 percent of biomedical engineering degrees went to women, followed by agricultural engineering at 32 percent.

Biomedical engineering's largest lead was at the doctoral level where women received 32 percent of all biomedical or bioengineering doctorates, compared to the next highest, chemical engineering at 21 percent.

Although data for degrees awarded last spring is still being gathered, early indications suggest that biomedical engineering remains at or near the top, says Michael Gibbons, project manager for surveys and statistics at the ASEE.

This phenomenon can be explained partly by surging enrollments in biomedical engineering and bioengineering programs across the United States. Nationwide, female enrollments in engineering overall sit around 20 percent, and women receive, on average, about the same percent of all engineering degrees. Most biomedical engineering or bioengineering programs, however, average around 38 percent female, according to the Engineering Workforce Commission.

After declining in the early 1990s, overall engineering enrollments have edged slightly upward since 1996. Meanwhile, the number of women entering engineering has nearly doubled in the last decade, as has biomedical engineering enrollment overall.

Why are women attracted to biomedical engineering? For Pennsylvania State University graduate student Janice Turlington, the most attractive aspect of biomedical engineering is "the ability, or at least the opportunity, to be very creative. In other avenues of engineering, there's more of a rigidity to it. In biomedical engineering, it's really brand new. There are no cut and dry answers." Turlington plans to receive her bioengineering doctorate next year. Her research combines computer tomographic lung imaging with virtual reality and will help refine virtual bronchoscopy, the analysis, diagnosis and surgical planning for lung cancer.

Biomedical engineers take an engineering approach toward solving medical problems. This relatively nascent but fast-growing field is responsible for new medical instruments, diagnostic equipment and imaging technologies of every kind, artificial organs, implants and prosthetics. New areas include tissue engineering, telemedicine and bioinformatics, the technology of the genomic revolution.

"I think what were seeing is a qualitative influence factor at work," says Richard Heckel, Ph.D. Heckel has been tracking engineering education for about 35 years. Since retiring as an engineering professor in 1996, he devotes most of his time to running his company, Engineering Trends. Heckel explains the recent trends, in part, to generational effects. "Back in the old K through 12 system, girls weren't supposed to get involved in the quantitative stuff, the math and science," he says, "and most engineering fields, traditionally, were seen as quantitative. All that has changed now." Now disciplines like biomedical engineering are seen as more qualitative, he says, something women may see as more accessible.

Growing up, says Turlington, she felt less pressure to follow more traditional female careers. "Doors weren't being closed," she says. "Hindrances had been removed."

Sara Koehler agrees. She always liked math and science in high school, she says, but felt only encouragement from teachers, parents or peers in pursuing engineering. After earning a bachelor's degree in general engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Koehler began graduate school this fall at Northwestern University's Department of Biomedical Engineering. Last year, Northwestern awarded nine doctorates in biomedical engineering, seven of them to women. But it was not Northwestern's gender ratio that attracted her, she says, it was their strengths in rehabilitation engineering and biomechanics, which she hopes to pursue in her graduate research.

When starting college, Koehler thought about medicine, "but I liked engineering and still wanted to do something that was actually going to affect people," she says. "That's why I chose biomedical engineering, because it has more of that direct impact on people's lives and on their health, as opposed to making a better gear for a car. I want to see what I do affect people's lives on a more personal level."

The personal impact aspect that attracted Koehler may also attract other women to biomedical engineering. David Nelson, chairman of Michigan Tech's Biomedical Engineering Department, says many of the students who go into more traditional engineering fields are more focused on the specific technology. "They want to work on new cars or aircraft. They really like to tinker with things," he says. "The difference I see with biomedical engineering students is they are much more focused on what's going to be the social utility of what they do." Turlington says she thinks women have more of a tendency to be caregivers. "For me, [biomedical engineering] is a way to satisfy that."

When pitching his program to prospective high school students, Nelson highlights the social impact of biomedical engineering. The Michigan Tech Biomedical Engineering Department led the nation last year with the highest percentage of women enrolled, about 60 percent. Nelson estimates that this year, around 62 percent of the program's 178 students are female.

Another attractive aspect of biomedical engineering, says Nelson, is the lack of a perceived glass ceiling. "Women recognize this as a relatively new field, one having great advancement opportunities. It may have the perception of being a field that is more welcoming to women engineers."

Glass ceilings don't seem to concern Turlington, however. She says when she grabs her diploma, she will have no doubt she is in the right field: "I really want to help someone. It has nothing to do with the money. It has nothing to do with how far up the ladder I can go. For me, it has everything to do with how much I can help people."

Whitaker Foundation

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