Women in engineering: a review of the 2014 literature

SWE’s assessment of the most significant research found in the past year’s social science literature on women engineers and women in STEM disciplines.


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Interest in the underrepresentation of women in engineering and other STEM disciplines continued unabated in 2014. In addition to a large amount of scholarly and professional interest in the issue, broader public attention was drawn to it by discussion of America's competitive status in STEM fields—questioning whether the U.S. is falling behind, and if recruiting more women is the solution—and by an op-ed in The New York Times in which researchers Wendy Williams, Ph.D., and Stephen Ceci, Ph.D., made the controversial claim that sexism and discrimination were not significant factors explaining the low numbers of women in academic science. Our review of the literature covered well over 100 publications, including books, major reports, and journal articles in publications representing a half dozen or more disciplines. We searched for articles by examining major research databases and more than 70 journals that publish articles on gender and engineering. As always, the studies varied tremendously in quality and rigor; they also varied in their methodological approach, from complex statistical analyses of large data sets to interpretive studies of qualitative data.

The literature we reviewed continues to explore familiar explanations of why there are relatively few women in engineering. Some studies focus on early childhood socialization and children's experiences in the K-12 educational system, arguing that STEM in general and engineering in particular are perceived by children as male fields, so girls either are not attracted to them or are actively discouraged from entering them. Others focus on what happens to young women who display an aptitude for math, science, and engineering when they enter university. The focus here is on whether engineering programs are supportive of female students, whether engineering curricula respond to the kinds of issues in which female students are likely to be interested, as well as on understanding why young women with strong math and science skills opt for majors other than engineering. Finally, the literature continues to recognize that engineering graduates do not always thrive or remain in the field after they enter the workplace. Studies of both academic and nonacademic settings in which female engineers and scientists work continue to investigate potential obstacles to female engineers' career progress and factors that may explain why some female engineers "opt out."

It has become fairly common to argue that the explanation for the low numbers of women in engineering lies in all of these areas and that there is no single cause of gender imbalance in technical fields. However, an interesting aspect of this year's literature is the increasingly lively debate over the question of whether gender bias and discrimination characterize contemporary engineering workplaces. Are these factors keeping women out and/or holding them back when they gain admission, or, as some observers now hold, are women simply choosing not to enter the field, despite real progress in eliminating bias and discrimination? If gender bias and discrimination have been reduced or even eliminated, should the focus of analysis shift to the choices women make earlier in life about whether or not to enter technical fields in the first place? And, if the key is to understand women's choices, are those choices simply a matter of individual preferences or are they constrained by gendered realities that make certain choices more likely than others? Given the prominence afforded these questions, particularly by Williams and Ceci's New York Times op-ed piece, we have paid particular attention, in this year's literature review, to contributions that bear on the issues of bias and the nature of women's choices.

A historical overview

One of the most substantial publications we reviewed this year provides us with the opportunity to look at female underrepresentation in engineering in historical context. Amy Sue Bix's (2014) Girls Coming to Tech! A History of American Engineering Education for Women surveys the experiences of female engineering students at elite institutions from the late 1800s to the 21st century. Based on extensive use of archival materials, including the SWE archives, Girls Coming to Tech tells the story of how women gained entry to engineering, with focused case studies of Georgia Tech, Cal Tech, and MIT making up a substantial portion of the book. A full-length review appeared in an earlier issue of SWE Magazine (the 2014 Conference issue), but a quick summary here will serve to introduce some of the important questions about the contemporary situation.

SWE’s assessment of the most significant research found in the past year’s social science literature on women engineers and women in STEM disciplines. Courtesy: SWE

Bix describes the powerful forces that have served to exclude women from engineering over the past 100-plus years. She demonstrates that women in engineering colleges often encountered conscious, deliberate efforts to keep them out as well as an unwelcoming or even hostile culture that made it difficult to feel as if they belonged and to get the help that they, like their male counterparts, needed. Various forms of harassment, from sexist jokes to stereotypical comments on women's bodies to more serious forms of sexual misbehavior, also plagued female engineering students well into the 21st century. Bix is equally persuasive, however, in arguing that it was often unstated, implicit biases and unrecognized gendered processes and structures that blocked women's entry or discouraged their progress. Thus, factors ranging from the absence of equal facilities for women (e.g., restrooms), to often unstated and unacknowledged perceptions of women's inferiority, to linguistic practices ("girls" come to tech) that diminished women combined to make it difficult for them to thrive in engineering programs. She stresses the importance and consequences of conscious efforts to change attitudes and to break down the barriers that had traditionally kept women out of engineering.

In the end, the story Bix tells is one of incomplete progress. She documents the fact that the open questioning of the propriety of women's entry into engineering has more or less died away as women have found a place in the field. SWE is singled out for praise as one of the organizations that has played a key role in effecting this change. At the same time, she notes the persistence of stereotypical beliefs about women's abilities as engineers and scientists (she comments, for example, on Harvard President Lawrence Summers' infamous comments in 2005 on women's math abilities). In addition, she notes that observers have expressed concern that women's progress may have plateaued; even if explicit biases may have weakened, many of the implicit beliefs and structural realities that kept women out in the past continue to be in place today. As the SWE reviewer put it:

Her rich and nuanced study reminds us of how far women have come, as well as how much work remains if American engineering educators hope to cultivate the potential of all who seek its rewards (Homsher 2014:61).

Bix's historical review, then, leaves us with the question of why, despite concerted effort to increase the numbers of women in engineering, and some measurable progress in reducing conscious resistance to that effort, women remain a minority in the engineering profession.

Girls' aptitude vs. interest vs. socialization?

One possible answer to the question of why girls are less likely to be interested in engineering lies in childhood. For whatever reason, girls are less likely than boys to express an interest in engineering, so are less likely to identify it as a career choice and to take the preparatory steps necessary to entering the field. Traditionally, this was attributed to girls' lesser ability in the fields critical to engineering success: math and science. Educators and parents did not encourage girls to pursue engineering, and even girls themselves were not attracted to engineering because of the belief that girls lacked the skills needed to become an engineer.

Evidence has accumulated that this lesser ability is more myth than reality (for a brief summary, see Valla and Ceci 2014). But, the belief that girls lack math and science ability persists. Saucerman and Vasquez (2014) published a useful review of the literature on psychological barriers to women's participation in STEM, emphasizing what they argue is girls' and women's lifelong exposure to overt and subtle messages that make them feel that their absence from STEM fields is the result of lack of ability. They note, for example, that most teachers with math anxiety are female, and that teachers transmit math anxiety to students, so girls continue to be its primary victim. Similarly, teachers continue to attribute the math success of boys (but not girls) to innate ability, while media continue to portray STEM professionals as men. They note the existence of research indicating that men actually have more egalitarian views of women's ability in science and math than do women, perhaps reflecting the continued effects of the subtle messages to which women are exposed throughout the life course.

Scholarly attention also has turned to a different explanation of the relatively small numbers of girls expressing an interest in STEM careers. Maybe it is not a matter of perceived ability but rather that girls aren't attracted to engineering because they lack knowledge about a field that is widely stereotyped as male and which is seen to be involved with activities in which girls typically are not interested.

Several of the studies we reviewed this year focused on this explanation for female underrepresentation in engineering and what can be done about it. Hammack and High (2014) report on a study of 68 sixth- and seventh-grade girls in the Southwest who participated in an after-school mentoring program about engineering. Prior to the program, girls viewed engineers as people who "fixed things and built stuff."

SWE’s assessment of the most significant research found in the past year’s social science literature on women engineers and women in STEM disciplines. Courtesy: SWEParticipation in the program resulted in their viewing engineers as creative problem solvers who improve the world. Hirsch et al.'s (2014) study of 141 fourth- and fifth-graders also found that an enrichment program shifted students' perception of engineers (this was true for both boys and girls in their study). Interestingly, they found that girls in a girls-only enrichment group were more likely to show an increased sense of self-efficacy and to depict engineers as female, something few children of either sex did prior to the enrichment program. Each of these studies points to children's perceptions of engineering as male, and to the fact that that perception can be changed. A note of caution is introduced, however, by Robinson and Pérez-Quiñones (2014), whose study of 19 middle-school minority girls found that participation in a program on human-computer interaction changed the girls' perception of the discipline, but had little effect on their interest in pursuing a career in computer science.

One common intervention designed to combat the gender typing of engineering and STEM disciplines overall is mentoring. Underlying this approach is the idea that girls are less likely to be attracted to engineering and related fields because they see relatively few females in these occupations and have little contact with women who could serve as models. Two studies we reviewed, however, raise questions about this approach. Draus et al. (2014) surveyed 695 women in informational technology, who reported that they did not see a great deal of usefulness in mentoring; 57 percent said that mentoring had little or no effect on their decision to go into IT. Bamberger (2014) reports on a study of Israeli ninth-grade girls whose school was visited by 12 highly educated female scientists and engineers from one of the country's leading high-tech companies. Sixty girls participated in the visit, while a group of 30 did not. This intervention actually backfired, as the girls who participated in the visit had a more negative view of women in STEM and were less likely to express an interest in STEM careers afterward, while the control group showed no change. Bamberger speculates that the participants in the visit were frightened by the scientists and engineers, who used terms and concepts the girls found foreign and incomprehensible.

Valla and Ceci (2014), in a brief but provocative research note, point to another possible explanation for the fact that relatively few young women are attracted to careers in engineering and related fields. They raise questions about the ongoing focus on math ability in analyses of female underrepresentation in STEM, arguing that whether women have strong math ability tells only one part of what one needs to know to explain their occupational choice. The authors cite other research indicating that career choices are shaped by interests, not just aptitudes. Moreover, they note that women who score high on math ability also tend to score high on verbal ability, something that is less true for men. As a result, talented women have abilities in multiple areas, and may opt to enter fields in which verbal, rather than math, skills are central, whereas men who are good at math are more limited to what the authors describe as "narrow," math-centered activities. Valla and Ceci argue for a "breadth-based model" of women's underrepresentation in STEM, suggesting, in effect, that women choose not to enter these fields, rather than being excluded from them. This complements their contention, to be discussed below, that women are not treated unequally in science but are choosing NOT to enter math-based STEM fields, largely because of their choice to devote time to family and child-rearing activities.

Valla and Ceci raise an interesting question about whether talented young women are "voting with their feet" in avoiding science. However, the authors take for granted the definition of certain career paths (including engineering) as "narrow." Their argument is that boys who are only good at math are drawn to engineering and computer science because these fields demand those skills exclusively. But, as the National Academy of Engineering's Engineer of 2020 report and ABET's 2000 reconfiguring of accreditation criteria for engineering programs advocate, engineering actually requires a variety of professional as well as technical skills.

Valian (2014) raises precisely this question in a commentary on previously published studies on the use of occupational interest inventories. Valian argues that "gender schemas" (stereotypes) are built into these scales and that sex differences in interests are changeable and sensitive to environmental cues (such as changes in which women are represented in fields formerly dominated by men). Women's interest in math and science fields will increase if they have a feeling of belonging and an expectation of success, so that Valian concludes that "if we change the environment of math and science, we will change women's interest in math and science" (229). Perhaps, then, if engineering and math became (or were perceived as) less "narrow," they might attract more of the more broadly talented women Valla and Ceci contend.

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