By Clarice M.L. Holden, BSE
Say “engineer.” What person or image comes to mind? Say “technician.” Who do you picture? Our imaginations are shaped by our experiences. If you have been in the working world for a few years, perhaps you see a particular coworker. Maybe images of tools, circuits, boots, diagrams, and slide rules materialize. If you see a person, are you imagining a woman or a man? Within engineering and technical professions, men have historically outnumbered women—so, chances are, the person you thought of is male.
Within Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, this gender imbalance has equalized in clinical engineering positions and still exists for biomedical equipment support specialist positions. However, the working environment within Veterans Affairs hospitals is united and rewarding both due to its mission—providing the best possible care to vets—as well as the makeup of its staff. Outside of the VA, similar mission-oriented goals of improving patient safety and care make the hospital a rewarding place of employment for any mix of coworkers.
As a young woman in engineering who’s just begun my career, I have a fresh perspective on the clinical engineering workforce—not that of a totally different angle of the same old story, but born of looking through new eyes unseasoned by experience. What I see is very encouraging, and what I understand as a new mom just returning to work after several weeks of maternity leave, is very excellent. I will admit, I have been mistaken for my biomedical engineering department’s secretary (probably something to do with me being female), but it was an honest mistake. And the person was even more surprised to find out I’m actually an engineer.
I worked until my son was 38 weeks old en utero. I went home on a Tuesday, tired, but hoping to clean up, finish up a few work things from home, and take the next two weeks to relax. I went into labor on Wednesday. Giving birth was an experience that dramatically morphed how I view the world; there is nothing like being part of the reason an entirely new being has come into existence. When I returned to work, I was able to jump back into the hospital milieu—and it did not seem like I had been gone very long at all. Clinical engineering is an occupation with constant ongoing and upcoming tasks; there is no downtime—only slightly less busy times—so there is always something for an engineer to do.
Clinical engineering was a career path I would not have forecast for myself as I entered college. Like many young women these days who have backgrounds in and study STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), I envisioned becoming a doctor. As a biomedical engineering major, I had a fairly equal number of young men and women classmates. BME has the distinction of being one of the most gender-balanced engineering disciplines, engaging both young men and women in similar measure. It did not come as a surprise that the federal training program (geared toward biomedical engineering majors, but open to all engineering disciplines) I joined after school was balanced among its male and female participants.
From 2003 to 2013, 49% of Technical Career Field Biomedical Engineer interns have been women (according to Veterans Health Administration data). These interns go on to become the VA’s biomedical engineering department managers and staff engineers across the country. The evenness of men and women in the workforce of health care technology management within the Department of Veterans Affairs has a few roots.
Most fundamentally, working within the field of clinical engineering is rewarding. There is plenty of satisfaction in creating a positive, safe environment in which doctors and nurses can treat patients through harnessing technology to improve health. Within my short tenure as a clinical engineer, I have come to understand that it does not necessarily matter the gender of the person you work with—what matters is their dedication to the hospital’s mission and their competency in fulfilling it. It’s true that more women could find the career of engineer or technician rewarding, but the matter is not simply a general, blind push for a balanced gender census in clinical engineering workplaces. Bringing a more diverse group of people into health care technology management is really a matter of finding and inspiring people who desire to be a part of hospital operational services. After all, one cannot be a part of a profession if one doesn’t know it exists.
This inspiration starts by revealing to more people the opportunities within hospitals through education. Students are the next generation of biomedical/clinical engineers— though they may not know it.
The University of Connecticut’s Clinical Engineering Master’s Degree program directed by Frank Painter is an excellent example of educational inspiration. If his students are a snapshot of the future, then a balanced, diverse staff is already in the works. Of the 95 students who have graduated over the last 10 years, 44 were female. The program is intense, requiring a full student’s course load, as well as work within the hospital environment. These graduate students grow by leaps from the academic study to real-life implementation of concepts within their biomedical engineering shops. At the conclusion of the program, the newly minted clinical engineers have enough experience to be very competitive in the job market.
Through education, we plant the seed of the future in the minds of young people. When we encourage and inspire our daughters and sons in STEM, we enable a chance for them to explore the possibilities of becoming clinical engineers and technicians. We, as a career field, should do more to motivate and spread the word about clinical engineering—we ensure a diverse future when we do.
Clarice M.L. Holden is a supervisor biomedical engineer with the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. For more information, contact chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org.