The Problem with the "Pipeline"

Eric Iversen

People and Pipelines Don’t Go Together

Leo Grubler, used by permission

Leo Grubler, used by permission

I’ve never liked the “pipeline” metaphor we all use in K-12 engineering outreach. Pipelines are dank, dark, generally inhospitable places to be. Living things don’t do well inside them. Pipelines might well be models of mechanized efficiency for transporting raw materials over great distances to places where value-adding processes can transmute them into marketable finished goods. But as a dominant image in engineering outreach discussions about bringing, for example, middle-school girls into engineering, the “pipeline” does the field few favors. Would you really want to follow the guidance of someone who thought you should spend the next eight or nine years of your studies in a “pipeline?”

            Indeed, applying “pipeline” language to the ways in which girls make their way through engineering studies and into the field is probably unkind to pipelines. If a pipeline leaked out its transport at the same rate that girls and women abandon engineering, it would be summarily scuttled and recycled into rebar.

Jason Scragz, used by permission

Jason Scragz, used by permission

The Girls Are All Right in Math and Science

To begin with, there are plenty of girls already “in the pipeline.” By the end of high school, girls and boys perform comparably in math and science classes. In 1992, girls overtook boys in number of credits earned in these classes and continued this trend through 2005. The 2009 National High School Transcript Study showed gender parity in this area. The same study shows girls’ overall GPA at 3.10, boys at 2.90, and the quality of their math and science courses to be roughly the same. Boys do outperform girls slightly on NAEP tests in math and science. Even so, with about 3.3 million students graduating from high school this year, these data suggest that a bounty of girls are going to college with the skills required to succeed in engineering.

They Just Don’t Want to Stay

When students’ choices enter the picture, though, girls start to exhibit pipeline-exiting tendencies. Let’s posit AP exams as proxy indicators of boys’ and girls’ interests in fields of study or work. In 2013, boys outnumbered girls in all the rooms where tests associated with engineering are given.

  • Calculus - boys, 209,568; girls, 177,729
  • Chemistry - boys, 75,066; girls, 64,940
  • Computer Science - boys, 25,310; girls, 5,807
  • Physics - boys, 105,005; girls, 46,946

In the “helping” sciences – biology and environmental science – girls outnumbered boys by 40% and 20%, respectively.

            These trends hold from intention to major through earned degrees, both bachelors’ and advanced, and into the professional and academic workforce. Among first-year college students in 2005, 15.6% of men and 2.6% of women intended to major in engineering, with accompanying completion rates by 2011 of 8.6% and 1.5%. In 2013, women received 19.1% of bachelor’s degrees, 23.9% of master’s degrees, and 22.4% of doctorates. Of the 7.2 million STEM workers identified by the Census Bureau in 2011, 26% were women. In engineering, women amounted to half this amount, only 13%. In the academy, ASEE data show 14.5% of tenured and tenure-track faculty members are women. Pipeline, meet smelter.

“Why So Few”

The reasons for the pipeline’s rampant leakage are various and inter-related. And at different parts of a woman’s journey through engineering study and work, they can change. In the landmark 2010 study, “Why So Few,” the AAUW dissects three frequently posited categories of reasons: men’s cognitive affinity for STEM, girls’ and women’s lack of interest in STEM, and elements of the engineering workplace inimical to girls and women, such as bias, out-of-kilter work/life equations, and the absence of peer/mentor support.

            The report largely quashes any differences in cognitive ability based on sex. Rather, in exhaustive, persuasive detail, it illustrates how the second and third of these factors are functions of behavior and culture, susceptible to amelioration by conscious actions of informed individuals and institutions.

Lack of Interest

Girls’ reported “lack of interest” in engineering, for example, is seen as the visible tip of several phenomena not as readily captured by survey instruments. Girls tend to compare their abilities unfavorably to those of boys, don’t believe they can succeed in engineering, harbor views of gender-appropriate work that alienate them from engineering, and are generally not well informed about the rewards that engineering actually can offer.

Workplace Obstacles

In the workplace, women struggle with “isolation, an unsupportive work environment, extreme work schedules, and unclear rules about advancement” (“Why So Few,” p. 24). Presenting her study on why women leave engineering, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee psychology professor Nadya Fouad noted, “It’s the climate, stupid.” Bias, the AAUW notes, whether implicit or explicit, “negatively influences their progress and participation” (“Why So Few,” p. 24). In everything from formal evaluations to peer review to likability, assumptions about what’s appropriate for women make it harder for them to succeed than for men. The research presented  in support of these findings is robust and rigorous, and it makes for sobering reading.  

Wither the “Pipeline”

To plot a better route for girls to take into engineering than the currently available “pipeline,” people have found success with a consistently recurring set of practices, among them:

·      Encouraging girls in learning and testing situations

·      Elucidating the social contributions engineers can make

·      Using images of women in promotional materials

·      Highlighting role models

·      Providing peer and mentor support within engineering programs

Very visibly this summer, Harvey Mudd College, led by Dean Maria Klawe, graduated a class of engineers that was majority female, illustrating how these practices can pay off (at, admittedly, a small, well funded school). Other schools graduating outsized percentages of women in their undergraduate classes, according to 2013 ASEE data, include The Cooper Union, MIT, Princeton, and Cal Tech.

What We Try to Do

Two general principles stand out among the approaches that work to get girls into engineering: the power of images and the purpose of the work. Our elementary school book, Dream, Invent, Create, an NSTA Recommends title, follows these principles throughout. All 15 two-page spreads showcase areas of engineering with words and pictures that emphasize the difference engineers can make in people’s lives.

It’s been fun for us to learn about all the creative ways that people have used the book to excite kids about engineering. What do you think works best to get girls excited about engineering? Is the “pipeline” working or should it be retired in favor of something new? Let us know how things are going at your school or your company. These are big questions for all of us to figure out.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com