There has been a decrease in the gender gap within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). This essay explores the facts that reveal that the gender gap is a prominent issue specifically in the engineering workforce, the efforts being implemented to break this gap and their limitations, as well as what can be done to eliminate the gender gap in the future.
Notably, since the age of the ‘Space Race’, America has seen an exponential growth in STEM advancements. As a result, over the past couple of decades, this rapid increase in such technical improvements has led to an increase in the number of people pursuing STEM careers. However, the gender gap in STEM continues to exist; today, although women account for half of the United States college-educated workforce, they account for “only 29% of the science and engineering workforce.” These numbers are discouraging and disheartening, for they reveal the societal view that women are less capable than men in STEM fields.
An even more astonishing gender gap exists specifically within engineering, where the gap between men and women is the largest of the STEM fields. As a female pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at Harvard SEAS, I have first handedly experienced this gender gap: imagine being one of two women in a lab section of ten for an introductory Mechanical Engineering course at a school that prides themselves in being one of the leading institutions of gender equality. At the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) only 27 percent of undergraduates and 30 percent of graduate students are women. Similarly, equity does not exist in the engineering work field as evident through the fact that “women still earn 10% less than men among individuals whose highest degree is at the bachelor’s level, and 7%–8% less than men among individuals whose highest degree is at the master’s or doctoral level.” Keeping such data in mind, it is evident that there are not enough women in the engineering industry. This is a worthwhile issue that needs to be addressed because women bring ideas to the table that could not be developed by men. For instance, the engineering and development of feminine products has the capacity of being overlooked by men because men do not use such commodities.
Although there has been a significant effort to increase the diversity within the engineering workforce to close the gender gap, the resultant increase of women in engineering career paths is likely proportional to the greater need for people to fulfill such jobs. This increase of women in such positions over the past few decades is not reflective of equity in terms of how gender and is treated in within STEM, specifically engineering. Therefore, it is significant to ask: at a time of rapidly increasing technological advancements and in an era in which women are finally viewed as equal to men, why is it that this disparity of women in engineering still exists? There must be significant flaws in the methods being used in the workforce in attempts to be more inclusive for women. The current methods being implemented in the engineering industry to close the gender gap pivot around the idea of women empowering women. Such attempts fail to make a meaningful impact because they merely perpetuate stereotypes and neglect to bring everyone into the gender gap conversation.
While it may seem counterintuitive to address the gender gap within the engineering industry by making men a part of the conversation, it is vital for the success of the movement. Men need to be made a part of conversation and solution through means of, first, gaining awareness of disparity of women in engineering, then, participating in and helping progress current movements. Some may argue that by adding men to such movements, then women are reinforcing the upper hand that men already have in the engineering field by giving them the power to make the difference in the gender gap. Yet, the reality is that men make up most of the engineering field, thus, for a movement to be effective, their participation is necessary. Men need to learn of the lack of equity that women face in engineering because only by becoming aware of the issue can they contribute to the cause; there is power in numbers. Women need to continue to lead the crusade against the gender gap, but should strive to be more inclusive in their efforts of who is allowed to participate in such movements because if they are not, then they are merely creating their own gender gap, which is issue at hand to begin with.
The issue of the gender gap in engineering begins with the norm of what an engineer looks like and the characteristics that they hold. Given that engineering is a male dominated field, the characteristics that tend to be shared among men are associated with engineers. Such stereotypical ideals of an engineer places women at a disadvantage because most fail to fulfill the role of a ‘typical’ engineer. This is evident through the recent #ILookLikeAnEngineer Campaign, which was started by Isis Wenger, a female platform engineer for OneLogin. When she agreed to be on a OneLogin’s ad, the validity of the ad was questioned because she did not embody the ‘traditional’ characteristics of an engineer: a ‘nerdy’ male. Women face disadvantages in obtaining a career in STEM due to stereotypes associated with them that hinder them from being viewed equally to their counter-parts of a male dominated industry.
An engineer is someone who designs and creates a variety of products: skills that are stereotypically associated with masculinity. Men stereotypically carry the dominant traits of masculinity, power, and physical strength. Such stereotypes are developed starting at an early age; specifically, this is evident through the tendency of boys to play with Legos whereas girls are more likely to play with dolls. Lego blocks encourage interactive building and require, even if unconscious, design processes to be developed whereas dolls encourage nurturing behavior. Similarly, construction tool toys and train sets tend to be marketed toward boys rather than girls. Physiologically, “Kids routinely favor the toy they believe is meant for them, based on their gender. But the decision matrix that ultimately influences widespread views on which toys are for which children includes inputs from parents, kids, and toy makers—adding up to a system that produces something of a feedback loop.” Society has encouraged boys to be drawn to toys that encourage construction and engineering concepts through circular reasoning.
The idea of building has further been linked to men because of the continued societal norm that building is a ‘manly’ skill. It has been noted that men “have an embodied relationship with machines, and because a machine is often a symbiotic extension, of the person, of the man. In many cases a machine is given a feminine persona.” Engineers use powerful tools ranging from lathes, saws, calipers to mills. Although tools have been developed to require less physical force, tools such as hammers and handsaws require physical strength. By having the strength to use such tools, one has the power to build and develop products. Therefore, being able to operate tools and machines gives one the potential to be an engineer. Although both men and women can operate such tools, technical skills are associated with men because of the common conception that they are the builders of society as evident through their tendency of media to portray men as physically strong and always wanting to build things. It is important to note that men tend to give their tools or machines ‘feminine personas’ because by doing so they are giving themselves a sense of superiority, for they are in control of the machines that are limited to serving as tools but do not have an input in the design of a product.
The gender gap in engineering is further encouraged by the stereotypes associated with women and femininity, which contradict the traits of masculinity and the ‘ideal engineer’. Women tend to be linked with femininity and viewed as “communal, caring, emotional and concerned about others; men as intellectual, rational, logical.” Women are viewed as motherly figures in the sense that they are the child bearers of society. This is evident through an experiment in which participants were asked to judge whether they thought women in photos (all of whom were scientists) were teachers or scientists. The results revealed that a “Feminine appearance affected career judgments for female scientists (with increasing femininity decreasing the perceived likelihood of being a scientist and increasing the perceived likelihood of being an early childhood educator), but had no effect on judgments of male scientists.” Although all women were scientists, participants tended to relate women with more ‘feminine appearances’ to being teachers. This discloses the idea that women are viewed as caregivers in society. Due to the historical setting which women have been placed, childbearing is linked to being the homebody in charge of caring for the household and family through performing the tasks of cooking, cleaning, and child caring. As a result, women are observed as the weaker sex physically because they have been connected to the idea of staying home and being a ‘wife’ rather than working to contribute to the earnings of the family. Similarly, given that in history, ‘work’ was related with performing laborious tasks. Thus, men, who tended to be the breadwinners, are regarded as the physically stronger sex.
Some may argue that stereotypes are harmless ways of thinking; they are merely generalizations of a group of people based on the common actions of those within the group. However, stereotypes have a meaningful impact on women’s views of themselves, including their self-confidence in being able to perform well as an engineer. Specifically, “Research has shown that a fixed or growth mindset can have powerful effects on people’s behavior, especially people who belong to stereotyped groups.” This is particularly important for women engineers because there are many stereotypes floating around in society that display women as incapable of performing the same tasks as a male engineer. It is discouraging that “Women who were self-reliant, athletic – in short, somewhat masculine or tomboyish – probably would find graduate school most welcoming… For instance, the feminist scholars, Cockburn (1985) and Wajcman (1995) argued that ‘engineering projects a heavily masculine image hostile to women.’” There is nothing wrong with having masculine traits as a woman. However, if having masculine traits as a woman is the only way that a woman can succeed in the engineering industry, then there is the larger issue which is that the engineering industry is discouraging women from embracing their feminine traits. Why is it that “individuals who view themselves in stereotypically masculine ways tend to perform better on spatial, mechanical, and mathematical tasks, and individuals who view themselves in stereotypically feminine ways tend to perform better on verbal tasks”?
Stereotypes not only influence women’s views of themselves, but also have the effect of biasing employers to view women as less employable than men. Although childbearing and motherhood is a part of life for many women, it is often viewed as a downfall in the professional world. If an employer must choose between employee a female who has the right to take maternal leave if she chooses to pursue motherhood and a male who does not have such right, they are more likely to choose the later. This is known as the “‘career advancement double standard’: men’s family roles are seen as positively contributing to work success (by making him more responsible) without detracting from productivity (because someone else takes care of the household), while women’s family roles are perceived as detracting from work commitment.” Women engineers are often forced to choose between childbearing and career development due to this double standard. Childbearing, due to the amount of time required to have a child and the limitations that it imposes on the female body, such as restrictions on safe amounts of loads that can be carried or distances that can be traveled, can interfere with any job. This is especially true in the fast-paced engineering industry where teamwork is vital and each member is vital to the success of the development of a product. Equally, a career in engineering requires an extensive time commitment toward education from a Bachelor’s to usually a Master’s or even Doctoral degree. Such “lock-step model of advancement conflicts with the biological clocks of women who are beginning their careers at a point in their lives when they are most likely to be starting a family or considering doing so.” Women are often strayed from pursuing a career in engineering due to the extensive education required and the continuous time commitment to advance in the industry, which can make it difficult to have children or start a family.
The female body should be embraced for being equally capable of performing the tasks of a male engineer. Females are naturally associated with a nurturing character since they are the child bearers of the world. However, that is not all that they are; “This country is still paying the price for an educational system that socialized girls and minorities to avoid science because it is too hard or too masculine or is all about things that has no interest in people.” There is an issue in the way that we perceive women as merely mothers, and there is the larger issue that the engineering industry is viewed as a place in which only those who have masculine traits can prosper.
What methods are currently being implemented to shatter the glass ceiling for women in the engineering industry? For one, Raytheon, one of America’s world leading aerospace and defense companies has several employee resource groups including the Raytheon Women’s Network, which aims to provide “an open forum for the candid exchange of information, access to positive role models, and valuable networking and mentoring opportunities.” By providing Raytheon employees with a space for community, women are likely to feel welcomed within the company. Such a network tackles the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ in which women stray from pursuing engineering degrees or careers because they feel that they don’t belong. People tend to feel comfortable with those who share stories or background: “Feelings of belonging directly influence people’s motivation and satisfaction with a scientific career and can predict whether they stay at an institution.” It is difficult for women to feel that they belong in a workforce that does not properly represent them. Who do women have to ask vital questions about in regard to issues that they may face as women in the engineering field? Raytheon’s women employee resource group is effective in providing a safe space for women to empower one another and serve as a support group within the engineering industry.
It may prove difficult for men to embrace women in the engineering field because change can be intimidating. A recent movement for women to be taken seriously in the work field is known as “‘amplification’: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution—and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” This movement was developed and used by women of the Obama Administration. Although these women were not necessarily a part of the engineering workforce, this method that was used to have a woman’s voice heard can easily be applied in the engineering field.
Although it may appear that such methods of amplification and resource groups are effective in breaking the gender gap in engineering, they are merely temporary fixes. Current methods being implemented in the engineering industry to tackle the lack of equity for women are ineffective, for they fail to address the overgeneralized stereotypes made of women. Rather than create support groups for women in engineering or have women empower women, there needs to be a larger change in the way that women and engineers are perceived. To develop the engineering industry to be more inclusive, different characteristics need to be embraced by society: the ideal engineer as male needs to be broken. Stereotypes are where the gender gap in engineering stem from as evident through: “negative stereotypes pose a serious career obstacle for women scientists. In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences released the report Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, which recommended that scientific institutions adopt interventions that combat stereotypes.” Given that current methods are ineffective in closing the gender gap, rather than segregate people to make them stronger, there should be a movement involve those that represent the majority in the conversation. We need to start including men in the gender gap conversation; they need to recognize that this is an issue to be begin with. By acknowledging that this disparity even exists only then can steps be taken to start to work towards real solutions.
An example of policy that attempts to break the stereotypes associated with women and bring men into the gender gap is the Scandinavian ‘pioneered paternity leave’. This policy has been in effect since the 1970s that was developed because “the shaping of gender equality policies through a feminist friendly state is consequently crucial for individuals in their pragmatic decision making as well as the normative context in which decision making is embedded.” By enacting this policy, the Scandinavian government is breaking the stereotype that women hold the full responsibility of child care within a family. This discourages the bias from employers of hiring men instead of women because both hold the right to take leave for caring for their newborn children. This policy is effective in bringing men into the movement of breaking the gender gap within engineering. To bring an end to the gender gap within engineering, similar movements need to be developed. This can include an increase of babysitting centers in engineering companies, a push for more gender-neutral marketing tactics for toys, or validation from men for campaigns such as the #ILookLikeAnEngineer.
It has been considered that “women may be ‘in science’ but they are not ‘of science.’” This idea that women are simply not meant to pursue STEM careers is an outdated idea that has been proved wrong through the many successful women that have contributed to world advancements such as Marie Curie, Mae C. Jemison, and Dr. Jane Goodall. It is time to bridge the gender gap in engineering as well as acknowledge that there is the intersecting issue of the race gap in STEM: “The pattern is similar among racial and ethnic groups: compared with whites and Asians, S&E [science and engineering] highest degree holders in other racial and ethnic groups working full time earn 6%–7% less at each degree level.” Engineering is a field vital for the advancement of humanity, which can only be accomplished by having diverse engineers which bring various ideas to the table.
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