Sterling Engineering is proud to celebrate this year’s “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” as part of Engineers Week 2022. According to the Society of Women Engineers, male students express science and engineering career interest at twice the rate of young women. However, the U.S. stands out for having one of the lowest proportion (6%) of 15 year-old young women who indicate aspirations to pursue science and engineering careers. Only 14% of engineers in the U.S. are currently women, and companies are currently facing a shortage of engineering talent across a wide variety of engineering disciplines. Increasing the number of women engineers seems common sense as it would help alleviate the engineering talent shortage; still, getting young girls interested in engineering enough to pursue their college degrees and ultimately, their engineering career paths remains a challenge.
We sat down with Sterling Engineering’s Kita Gandhi, Director of Life Sciences Engineering, to talk about the importance of introducing girls to engineering and nurturing them towards engineering careers. Not only does Kita have an impressive engineering background, she inspires young engineers through her organization, Young Engineers Chicago Near West. Young Engineers® is the leader in integrating engineering into STEM programming, and they have been recognized by Harvard through their Global Education Innovation Initiative for their innovative programming.
Kita, tell us a little bit about yourself, including how you got started in engineering and how your career has unfolded.
As the daughter of a mechanical engineer who loved math and science, I always knew I wanted to be an engineer. I found chemistry fascinating so I decided to study chemical engineering, and I received both my BS and MS degrees. That degree helped me start working at Abbott and there, I found that with an engineering degree, you could move around within the company to any number of areas and positions. Being an engineer wasn’t just about your technical knowledge; it was equally about your thought process and problem solving. I spent 16 years with Abbott and then AbbVie, starting as a contract validation engineer and finishing as a $25MM+ Capital Project Manager. I’m now at Sterling Engineering leading our Life Sciences engineering practice.
How can we encourage younger girls to be more exposed and more interested in engineering?
The most important thing we need is early education STEM programs, both in-school and extracurricular, that start at pre-K and go through high school. This has to be available not only to those families who can pay for it, but more importantly to those lower-income schools and areas who can’t afford these programs. This requires donations both of funds and time!
Do you think STEM-related hobbies are important? Can you share some of your hobbies that may (or may not) have contributed to your STEM involvement?
I believe hobbies are important for everyone, especially children. As they say, “all work and no play….!” It might not be a hobby specifically but one of the main interests I’ve seen in many kids (and that I had as well) is the desire and curiosity to know how things work, taking things apart, putting them together, and so on. In addition to that, some of my hobbies when I was younger included Debate, Science Olympiad, Knowledge Bowl, softball, and choir. My current hobbies include scuba diving, cooking, watching football, horseback riding, and skating.
How can we have more women involved in science and have them as role models for younger generations?
Research has shown that kids, especially young girls, need to be exposed to and encouraged in STEM at a very early age. In addition, the “social norm” of common gender-specific toys and activities can really stifle girls’ interests in STEM. There are a couple of ads/messages over the years that really shine a light on this (better than I can state in words): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yND9hDpPwYA vs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sygqZWBcuKk. Girls need to see other women in STEM and as a society, we need to place a greater value on showcasing these women as role models instead of supermodels, celebrities, and viral video stars.
Are there any engineering related influencers who inspire you regularly?
I follow two in particular: Katie Sowers because she is an amazing example of a woman breaking into and succeeding in a “men’s field’, and Alton Brown because he brings science and engineering to the kitchen!
What are three changes that could make life better for girls and women in engineering?
First, we need to provide STEM and engineering exposure to kids at a young age and we need support especially in doing so for lower income schools and communities who normally can’t afford STEM exposure programs. Next, we need kids, especially girls, to have more visibility to STEM adult role models so they can be inspired by what is possible. Finally, we must work towards gender parity in the workplace for women engineers (more info here: https://www.computer.org/publications/tech-news/trends/a-guide-to-bridging-the-gender-gap).