The culture of engineering does not take women seriously

Isolation and ‘blatant sexual harassment’ among the issues reported by female engineering scholars, writes Brian Rubineau

October 27, 2016
Female engineer measuring voltage on conductor board
Source: Getty

Engineering has a large-scale retention problem: talented, interested and skilled women leave engineering at higher rates than men.

The potential contributions, inventions and innovations of these women are lost to the profession and the world. Efforts to encourage girls to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects in school and to reform engineering curricula have proven insufficient. New research shows that social interactions outside the classroom contribute to the loss of women from engineering.

The culture of engineering does not take women seriously. As a result, the discipline continues to lose female talent. More must be done to keep these women engaged. 

Our research, which began in 2003, followed 700 engineering students across four universities: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); the University of Massachusetts (UMass); Olin College of Engineering, Massachusetts; and the female-only Picker Engineering Program at Smith College, also in Massachusetts.

Our research team, including me, co-authors Carroll Seron (University of California, Irvine), Erin Cech (University of Michigan) and Susan Silbey (MIT), conducted annual surveys of these students, paired with another review five years after they graduated, provided data about their interactions with students and teachers in classes and on projects, their feelings on college culture and their occupational and family expectations for the future.

In addition, we collected personal diary entries from a small percentage of these students (19 men, 21 women), who documented their educational and career experiences and decisions in a bi-monthly record during their time in university. This information allowed us to piece together the study experiences of both men and women, as well as the attitudes and challenges they faced throughout their education and in the workplace.

One common theme throughout our research was that some women were reporting unchallenging projects, isolation from support networks and even blatant sexual harassment as tarnishing both their work experiences and perception of engineering as a whole.

In depth: building a future for engineering 

Women consistently cited these and similar experiences as reasons for considering leaving engineering. They often felt dismissed within their projects or internships and that they were sidelined while their male colleagues dominated the more “hands-on” tasks, while the women were expected to take on more menial and administrative tasks. On this topic, one female participant wrote: “Two girls in a group had been working on the robot we were building in that class for hours, and the guys in their group came back in and within minutes had sentenced them to doing menial tasks while the guys went and had all the fun in the machine shop.” 

However, these sorts of experiences were not only reported about peers or colleagues. Sometimes those in senior positions were also guilty of this gender discrimination.

For example, one respondent described her experiences during her internship at an engineering firm. “One thing that really bugs me about being an intern and a young girl is that the people whom I work with don’t take me seriously. Not everyone does this, but a fair amount of the older men in my working environment do this. They’ll treat me like I know nothing. 

Our research also suggested that while women viewed engineering’s potential for social development as an attraction to the field, this was not a widely held value among men in engineering. Although many engineering firms touted the promise of engineering to improve the world, in practice, this was only lip service.

Gender differences in interest in socially conscious engineering was clear in students’ diaries. Female participants in particular explained that they wanted to use their newfound skills to improve situations around the globe. Others cited humanitarian work as a preferred area for their future careers.

We saw no similar expression of interest in men’s diaries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women with interest in socially conscious engineering reported that there had been little exposure to such projects in either their courses or internships, leaving them feeling disheartened and alienated. For this reason, many decided to leave and alter their career path to better fit their expectations. 

It is clear, then, that more must be done to tackle attitudes if engineering wants to diversify and capitalise on the female talent at its feet. With such a vast network of skilled women throughout the profession, to not value their presence and contributions is to truly turn away from innovation – something engineering, and our world that grows increasingly reliant on engineers, cannot afford to do. 

Brian Rubineau is associate professor of organizational behavior in the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.

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