Women engineers are no longer freaks. They have even begun to lose their novelty rating as fish out of water, as women in a ''man's'' profession.
They are being welcomed, even encouraged, by both academia and industry to compete in this male-dominated world of mathematics, slide rules, and, more recently, computers. Many bright women are leaping at the invitation.
Compared with the number of their masculine counterparts, the number of women engineering students is still minuscule. But their rate of increase is staggering: Today their total is more than 18 times what it was a dozen years ago. In 1970, 358 women earned bachelor's degrees in engineering -- less than 1 percent of all the engineering graduates in the United States. Last year, 6,545 women made up 10.4 percent of the graduating class.
The stampede to engineering in the last four or five years by both men and women is a response to the tremendous demand for them, brought on at least in part by the burgeoning computer industry, which has opened up thousands of new jobs. Academics say women are becoming engineers for the same reasons men do: high salaries, plenty of jobs, and a desire to do something that appeals to them. And given women's new mobililty in society, there is less standing in the way of an engineering career for a woman today.
The engineering phenomenon is also part of today's -careerism bias -- a decided veering away from science and the humanities to the professions: law, medicine, business, engineering. Students today ask themselves: ''If I am going to college, what am I going to do when I get out?'' For engineers, there's a career waiting for them. And for women, there's a reverse form of discrimination: Some companies are paying a premium to get women engineers, offering them slightly higher starting salaries than men, ranging from $24,000 to $26,000.
The upswing in women engineering students is ''like a tidal wave coming out of the ocean,'' says Frederick C. Nelson, dean of Tufts University's School of Engineering. ''We did not expect it or plan for it.'' About a third of the freshman in his school's program are women. Nationwide, between 15 and 20 percent of those entered in engineering programs are women, reports John Myers, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Duke University has 25 percent.
What does Dean Nelson think of this trend? ''Terrific!'' he exclaims. ''We need these people coming into engineering. But we need more than just technicians. In the future, engineering is not going to be just solving differential equations. I think engineers are going to face problems that are not only technical but also interconnected with society, where ecological, environmental, and social considerations will be more important than ever.
''I see a lot of these women engineers bringing with them wide interests in cultural activities and policy issues. Much broader people are coming into engineering now than we have had in the past couple of decades. This influx of women is assisting that change.''
Meanwhile, computers are changing the way engineers work. A lot of engineering today is done in offices on computer terminals, rather than on large shop floors, in factories, or on construction sites, as in the past. Women, perhaps, find the new environment more attractive.
From where she sits in Washington, Betty Vetter sees the women's movement as the general impetus behind the trend toward women engineers. She is the executive director of the Scientific Manpower Commission, a private, nonprofit organization. Feminism says to young women today: ''Not only is it important that you learn how to support yourself . . . but you may choose to do that in any field you want to. It is your right to become anything you want to be, that you are capable of doing as a human being, and not be stopped because of your sex.''
The forces that have flung open the engineering profession to women have been demographic and legislative - fewer students to draw on at a period of peak demand, combined with the federal government's affirmative-action program requiring industry to increase the number of women and minorities in professional and managerial positions.
Under government pressure, the leading technical companies began in the mid- 1970s to advertise attractive jobs for women in engineering. They printed brochures urging high school girls to take math and science courses and to enter engineering schools. And they asked universities to step up their production of all engineers, including women.
Universities had their own reasons for interesting women in engineering. Lower birthrates for the last 20 years mean dwindling future college enrollment. High school graduates who are less and less qualified in science and mathematics mean fewer engineering candidates.
''So the only way we can meet the need we see for engineering as essential to our productivity and health as a nation and our ability to compete is to increase the number of women and minorities,'' says Gerald Wilson, dean of MIT's School of Engineering. ''Hence our effort to raise their sights to the point where they will seriously consider engineering as a career potential. The fact that this is beginning to happen is one of our hopes for continuing to meet the tremendous demand on engineering talent.'' (At some universities today, though, the number of women engineering candidates is so great that recruitment is letting up.)
Many schools have rolled out the red carpet for women, trying to make them feel more at home in a traditionally masculine realm. For example, as soon as Mary Wasilewski was admitted to MIT, she got a telephone call from a woman student there urging her to come and offering to answer any questions she had. MIT's admissions office does a lot of that kind of phoning to prospective freshman.
It's true, Mary says, that there's a fair amount of campus joking about women being in a masculine atmosphere, a climate that some pioneer women engineers found hard to take. But she says she has had no problems. ''Most of my fellow students treat me very much as an equal. . . . Professors sometimes do say, 'Well, you guys,' but they, too, treat you as any other student. . . .
''You are just dealing with other people, whether they happen to be female or male. You get help from them and you help them. . . . I think I am teaching people that women can be engineers just as well as guys. They are learning that as well as I am.''
On-the-job discrimination still keeps women from being promoted as readily as men, women in the engineering profession say. But ''our goal at MIT's section of the Society of Women Engineers,'' says Mary, ''is just being a good professional engineering group. . . . We are trying to get toward the more positive viewpoint and to take the emphasis off the fact that we are different. I think by doing that we will fit in better and the problem will be on its way to being solved.''
Much has been written about the gold rush to engineering playing havoc with universities' efforts to hold onto engineering faculty. There is little incentive for professors to stay on the job when their students' starting salaries rival their own. With fewer men seeking master's and doctoral degrees in engineering, there are fewer research assistants to help with the teaching of classes that have become very crowded.
Interestingly, at a time when American men engineers are bypassing advanced degrees, the percentage of women seeking them is increasing. Again, their numbers are small: In 1970 only 170 women earned master's degrees in engineering , or 1.1 percent of the total. Last year 1,225 women earned this degree, representing 6.7 percent of the total. In 1971, 16 women earned doctoral degrees in engineering, or 0.4 percent of the total. By 1981, 90 women had earned their doctorate, or 3.2 percent.
At present, half the students earning doctoral degrees in engineering are foreign-born men, many from Asia. This fact points to a significant change in the composition of engineering faculties on American campuses in the future.
To Louis Padulo, dean of the Boston University's College of Engineering, ''this is a terrific time for a woman to earn a PhD in engineering. She will really stand out. She will find that most graduate programs are extra interested in her because she is a woman and because she is an American. Because of the shortage of engineering and computer-science faculties, she'll find lots of job opportunities, nice tenure-track openings.''
Boston University is so concerned with helping women earn advanced engineering degrees that it has begun an experimental program called LEAP, an acronym for Late Entry Accelerated Program. This two-year program, supported mainly by the university with the aid of a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), enables women who ordinarily would not be accepted into a master's program in engineering to earn a master's degree in one of several fields of engineering. BU believes this is the only program of its kind for women engineers in the country.
Dean Padulo has high praise for LEAP, one of a number of programs supported nationwide by NSF grants. ''We can clearly demonstrate what a difference we make in these people's lives. We get really smart people who are very much underemployed and underutilized who are doing beautifully in a very rigorous program. They are going to come out in two years with very marketable skills that everybody is going to be wanting to get.''
What troubles him now is that the Reagan administration has terminated the NSF's Career Facilitation Program, under which Boston University received its grant for LEAP. Some 35 other projects in this program to forward science education among women, which NSF has supported over a six-year period, have fallen under the same ax.
Industry, which President Reagan expects to pick up the slack, seems slow to recognize its long-range stake in giving financial aid to help universities turn out more engineers and faculty members. Some have made substantial contributions as stopgap measures, but more have only begun thinking about what they might do to help solve this nationwide problem.
Betty Vetter says that ''there comes a point in all these professions at which the number of women forms a critical mass.'' This is her term for the point at which there are enough women in a profession that they don't feel conspicuous. A woman can then say to herself: I am happy to be a woman. I don't want to be thought of as unfeminine. There are now enough women around me so that I am OK in a situation in which even though I may be a minority, I am not so much of a minority that I'm conspicuous.
''We will know when women have reached their proper proportion in engineering ,'' Mrs. Vetter says, ''when women can enter that profession and have the same right to be mediocre, and still advance, that men already have. Up to now, whenever women have gone into a man's occupation, they have had to be superwomen to do it.
''We will come up to a point,'' she forecasts, ''when we reach that critical mass where women will be distributed across any professional group in the same top, middle, and bottom third that men already are. As it is now, women are still largely in the top third of their graduating class.''