Engineering careers are hot. Here's how women can catapult into the male-dominated field.

While the tech and science industries have rallied through the COVID-19 crisis, engineering may be the heretofore silent secret for job prosperity and resilience, and ideal for women to pursue.

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Image: iStock/metamorworks

Technology may not be completely bulletproof, but as far as jobs are concerned, it was the best-bet industry to be in this year, because every role from IT to engineering was seriously in demand in 2020. Despite a seemingly one-step-forward, two-steps-back progressive journey, women are unquestionably wanted in the high-tech realm, according to a handful of industry experts who shared their insights with TechRepublic.

"We are seeing even more women jump into top technology and engineering roles within companies," said Oscar Pedroso, founder and CEO of Thimble, which teaches kids (ages 10+) engineering and programming, via an online learning portal with tutorials.

"Many of these women become successful and serve as role models for aspiring female technologists," Pedroso said. "Some of these professionals establish competitions, investment funds, and mentorship programs to attract women who have an interest in STEM but haven't made the leap."

Men, women, and high tech

"High tech, in general, draws more men than women, especially in engineering types of positions," said Heather Paunet, senior vice president at Untangle, a cybersecurity provider for SMB. "Various stereotypes come across to us even at an early age," Paunet said, citing gender-based toys. 

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

The tech world shouldn't have to ignore that there are differences between men and women, she said, but we "have to make sure that at early ages they're exposed to all types of activities to find what they're passionate about. Ensuring women are educated and know about high tech and cybersecurity careers is a first step." Men can help by acknowledging "women are still today a minority within high-tech companies." 

New attitudes

"A disadvantage was that both men and women in the field felt women in science had to choose between a traditional science track and a family," said Kelly Kent, a neuroscientist Ph.D. who's also currently running for a second term on the Culver City, CA school board.

"It's very different now, although [we're] still struggling with that. Most women who knew they wanted a family knew academics (tenured research) would not work." Thankfully, for the mother of two, women have been--and are--making it work. "This field has to become more family-friendly," Kent said.

It can be discouraging, said Kristina Balaam, senior security intelligence engineer at the mobile security provider Lookout. "A staggering number of women leave STEM and many studies point to challenges around work/life balance as a significant contributing factor."

"We want to see more women in leadership positions, we have to retain women in the industry. This means promoting a culture that encourages work/life balance—rather than supporting a narrative that it is detrimental to a career in STEM." 

Support women as their careers develop, she stressed. "Help them improve negotiation skills so female leaders are not underpaid compared to their male counterparts and encourage female employees to apply for positions of leadership to overcome 'The Confidence Gap,' which exists when women are more unlikely to apply for a position if all the 'required' skills on an application are not met."

Lisa Plaggemier, chief strategy officer at the cybersecurity provider  MediaPro, said: "What women need to succeed is confidence, plain and simple. Women downplay their skills and experience while men--and this is a huge overgeneralization--have a lot more bravado. We can be more risk-averse, and so we might not take a big career leap because we're afraid we're not ready. Men tend to take those risks and often it pays off."

Being risk-averse doesn't mean women are less capable, and men in leadership can help by recognizing that and encouraging talented women. Men must be a part of the solution."

Balaam agrees, "Most women tend to succeed where they feel their career goals are supported, where their ideas are heard, where they're respected and where they see a potential for leadership positions."

"When women work in an organization with very little representation at the C-suite level or even within the midlevel management tier, it makes many of us believe we need to look elsewhere to advance their careers," Balaam added.

Start 'em young

"It's important that parents and educators encourage STEM at a young age," Pedroso said. "Late elementary and middle school is usually a great time to explore an interest in STEM; earlier doesn't hurt either. It's important that girls see other girls go into tech and engineering roles. There's a reason why Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, and Society of Women Engineers exist. It's all about creating awareness, support, and inspiration.  I tend to see women go into chemical engineering, biomedical engineering, and electrical engineering more than any other engineering field. But they should certainly not limit themselves to just those fields."

"Jobs in tech are in demand but kids are not growing up wanting and ready to fill them," Pedroso said. "Society is moving towards a skill-based economy. With a shortage of talent, companies will fight tooth and nail to find the best possible talent. That will create high-paying salaries."

The most in-demand job openings

Companies offering the highest salaries are screening for the "best possible talent," said Pedroso. The most sought-after tech pros are those who are "in software including back-end programming, front-end programming, software architect, data mining, Internet of Things (IoT), augmented reality, virtual reality, gaming, and others. Software is useless without hardware so robotics, electrical engineering, computer engineering, and mechanical engineering are also just as valuable."

Consider choosing a college that puts an emphasis on "special manufacturing, engineering, and software programs," Pedroso suggested. 

While still in school, build a network of contacts, do internships, because it can take months, even years for businesses to vet talent. "Companies value semester-long internships where students learn the ropes for a particular job. Many of these students receive full-time offers before graduation. LinkedIn can be helpful for research and building relationships with the right people but I wouldn't rely on any website to do the trick. You have to put yourself out there."

Tech jobs on the rise

The jobs are there, now. Monster provided TechRepublic with data from September to October: Tech jobs are showing a 9% uptick in the first two weeks of October versus the first two weeks of September, with greater increases in new postings, which include software developers, applications, computer systems analyst, and computer systems engineers/architects.

FlexJobs said computer/IT has seen the most growth of remote jobs since March 1. 

FlexJobs saw a 12% increase in remote job listings in August over July 2020.

Specifically, the computer/ID career categories saw an increase of more than 50% in remote jobs posted since March 1, 2020. FlexJobs also saw an increase in the number of new companies recruiting remote workers. 

Teach your children well

Pedroso, like Paunet, believes educating children early is important. Encourage your children to join a STEM, coding, or robotics club in school. 

"They are always looking for beginners and someone to continue their legacy," said Pedroso. He recommended visiting sites such as: Instructables for STEM projects that use household materials. Two podcasts geared for inspiring students to go into STEM, and cites his favorites Solve it for Kids Podcast and Smart City podcast

Also, he added, "parents should consider a Facebook group such as STEM Activities for Kids to encourage them into tech, a Reddit forum where you can ask questions and learn about what other students are doing, or my favorite site for technology news Hacker News."

At an early age, a child should learn there are no limits to career choice, and that it "doesn't mean just business, law, and medicine. There's software, hardware, and engineering that fall under so many disciplines.  Pedroso offered the following suggestions:

  • First and foremost, have an open mind. 
  • Join the local startup business community, you'll meet talented STEM professionals
  • Take a basic coding class in school. ("I've seen so many kids give it a try and end up taking more classes," Pedroso said.)
  • Turn curiosity about everyday items and devices into challenges worth solving.
  • Join a local makerspace, a community with a knack for ideating, inventing, building, prototyping, and even building a business. Pedroso offered one in New York City as an example. 
  • Sign up for a free coding class on sites like Codecademy or YouTube. 

Be motivated, be an innovator

"We have a lot of downtime during the pandemic," Pedroso said. "If you're bored at home, this may be a great way to pass time and start a new interest. You can also observe robotics classes for free on our site Thimble.io.

Technology and engineering will continue to evolve, Pedroso said, countries need to be competitive and there will always be a push for invention and innovation, which requires "talented professionals with specialties in hardware, software, engineering, data, and technology. Be prepared to see more around artificial intelligence, robotics, AR/VR, telemedicine, and space exploration. These will be thriving careers for decades to come."

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