Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Women and Engineering:

Still a Long Way to Go

I started my education, and a few years later, my career, in an age where women were still a relative rarity in the sciences and education.  My undergraduate class at MIT was only 5% women.  As a graduate student, I was the only female student in the entire nuclear engineering department (at that time, only a graduate department).

Therefore, I tend to view the current statistics on women in science and engineering as nothing short of miraculous:  Recent MIT entering classes have edged near 50% women.  Wow!  I am now seldom the only professional woman at a meeting.  Super!

Thus, I read with interest an article in the Harvard Business Review noting that many women who enter the engineering profession end up leaving the field.  As a result, while considerable progress towards equal representation has been made in other technical disciplines, nearly 40% of women who study engineering never enter the engineering workforce, and women still constitute only 13% of the engineering workforce.  By contrast, the article points out that the number of women in medicine and law is approaching the number of men in the field, and the number of women in the basic sciences is on the rise (although they give no numbers).  Clearly, I had been looking at one set of numbers that looked very promising, but digging deeper, the picture gets murkier.

The article cited several factors behind these trends.  They focus most on subtle forms of discrimination in team-related and internship activities.  These include things like the teams assigning the female members the more routine, non-technical tasks.  Certainly, being cut out of the most interesting work must make engineering seem like a less exciting profession.

The article also indicates that women, more than men, seek "socially responsible" work, and they feel they do not find that in the engineering profession.  I must admit that I find this argument a little puzzling, as I've always felt that engineering professions offer more opportunities than most professions to provide direct benefits to society.  While it is not the only profession that benefits society, it offers a broad range of possible ways of improving people's lives and welfare, whether by helping provide more energy, cleaner water, safer transportation, better labor-saving devices, or in a host of other ways.

I know that some will observe that the study doesn't say much about what happened to the women who left the engineering profession.  Did they, indeed, end up doing work that benefited society more directly than they could in most engineering positions?

While I can agree that would be nice to know, the fact remains that in the year 2016, we still have behavior in academic settings that effectively sends a message to women that they are not equal, and that takes away from them the full opportunity to contribute to projects and to enjoy the challenges of the profession.  This doesn't do anyone any good, and I hope this study causes the academic community to look more closely at the team projects and how they are run, and to seek ways to address the types of behavior the study found.  In addition, I would hope that the professors and others make an effort to explain the value of engineering activities to society.  It is apparently not as obvious as some of us in the profession think it is.


1 comment:

  1. I live near Johnson Space Center in Houston. Most of my neighbors are engineers, either at JSC or in the petro-chemical complex nearby. My observation is that there are two kinds of engineers. There are truly happy ones who were born, hard wired as engineers and would never do anything else. This is a small group. Then there are the vast majority, the unhappy ones who, when very young, were good math and science students which were heavily recruited towards engineering. Today, they mark their time counting the days towards retirement or working on entering a different field of work. I think the field would do better if they stopped recruiting students into engineering programs and let those who are truly inclined to self sort into engineering.