Dream Big: The Film Funders Who Want Girls to Be Engineers

Two girls in school uniforms cross a bridge in Haiti.
Girls in Haiti take a new bridge to school. (Photo credit: “Dream Big – Haiti Behind the Scenes”)

The number of women in engineering (the crucial E of STEM) has risen in the last few decades, but still lags behind men — only 13% of engineers are women. A new big-screen film called, “Dream Big: Engineering Our World,” seeks to inspire the next generation of diverse female engineers. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF) and Bechtel Corporation are the key partners driving this initiative.

A Film About Big Dreams

“Dream Big” shares exemplary feats of engineering and the stories of the contemporary engineers who bring them to life, with a focus on women in the field. Towering buildings, underwater robots, solar cars and sustainable city planning are a few of the topics covered.

Mary Jane Dodge, the film’s executive producer and MFF’s director of theater marketing, tells Philanthropy Women that one female engineer featured in the film gave up a high-paying job to lead a nonprofit called Bridges to Prosperity. This organization partners with local communities in low and middle-income countries to build pedestrian bridges, and some of the bridges help kids get to school.

“We put her story in the film along with other stories about women engineers because we hoped it would resonate with young girls and inspire them to go into engineering. And, we were astounded by the results. We received countless letters and emails from girls inspired by the film,” Dodge says. Within one family that contacted them, several sisters expressed a desire to become engineers. “[She] was so excited and energized to continue studying to make that happen,” the mother said of one daughter.

By the end of 2019, a Dream Big DVD will be sent to every public school in America – over 100,000 schools — as well as to many private ones and schools in other countries. It has won several awards, including the Best Film of the Giant Screen Cinema Association, and the lifetime projected attendance of the film is 20 million people. Schools receive educational kits along with the movie, which is now also available on Netflix. The film reports that, at one juncture, 72 percent of children who saw the film said it “inspired them to become engineers.”

Plenty of Room for Growth in STEM Equity

There was a 54% increase in engineering and computer science bachelor’s degrees awarded to women between 2011 and 2016, according to recent research from the Society of Women Engineers.

But out of the freshman class of 2014, about 27% of men intended to major in Engineering, Math, Statistics or Computer Science, while only 8% of women did.

“More women are graduating with degrees in engineering, but the percentage of women in top executive positions hasn’t changed since the 1980s,” Catherine Jereza, a deputy assistant in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity, said during a recent IEEE Women in Engineering conference. The conference covered challenges women face in engineering including being unsupported, isolated and undermined, or experiencing impostor syndrome. Women’s mentoring programs and self-advocacy skill development were some of the solutions discussed.

As we previously covered, discrimination and sexual harassment are persistent issues in STEM fields. “Many American colleges and universities were formed for the express purpose to educate men,” a 2018 study sponsored by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine states. And, men continue to fill most of the roles in these fields.

For philanthropists who want to address this persistent power imbalance and unjust cultural phenomenon, funding to close the gender gap is an option. For example, earlier  in 2019, Stacey Nicholas gave a $5 million gift to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA)’s Samueli School of Engineering, in support of Women in Engineering at UCLA, a program that works to close the gender gap in engineering majors at the school.

Backing the “Dream Big” film is another example of how funders can creatively address the gender gap. The Bechtel Corporation, the title sponsor of the film and the philanthropic arm of the largest construction and engineering firm in the U.S., has long supported engineering programs in America and abroad. “Dream Big” also received support from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, which was created by the head of the corporation and is in the midst of its final spend down. A full list of supporters is available online. Dodge of MFF says a new fundraising campaign is now underway to produce a “Dream Big” sequel, “so we can continue telling these stories and inspiring more girls and boys to go into engineering and other STEM careers.”

Intersectional STEM Issues and Funding

And, like many (perhaps all) feminist issues, the STEM fields’ gender gap is intersectional. Between 2011 and 2016, 5.6% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering were awarded to women of color. Many American institutions of higher learning were formed to educate white men in particular, and so women of color face compounded barriers and prejudice. People who identify as women and are LGBTQ+, differently abled and/or are part of other oft-marginalized communities can face additional hurdles.

The “Dream Big” team had some of these intersecting issues and diverse audiences in mind. MMF states in “Dream Big” literature that ASCE originally approached them because not enough women and minorities were considering a career in engineering. “ASCE wanted us to change the image of engineering, and at the same time inspire more students, more women and more students with diverse backgrounds to pursue a career” in this field.

Supporting women and boosting diversity in STEM are challenges many big tech funders like Google, Salesforce, Apple and Boeing are attempting to address. Focusing specifically on the intersection of gender and race is one way to tackle multiple issues at once. Black Girls Code is an example of a nonprofit focusing on empowering young women of color in STEM fields, and it has received significant corporate support. If more philanthropies and philanthropists take an intersectional approach to feminist STEM funding, this strategy could potentially have powerful ramifications for diverse women and their communities around the world.