Shift the gender paradigm in engineering

Studying for my second-year psych exam and I’m forced to read yet another article on gender differences. This one was slightly more balanced, as the authors considered social influences alongside neuropsychological evidence and the effects of hormones, but as I sit here, a licensed female engineer retraining for a new career, I think they missed the mark.

Short version: The authors conclude that we need to coax women into traditionally male fields of science and engineering, as though that is a new idea.

Engineering schools have been wrestling with the women deficit since before I enrolled in the early 1990s. Women sat in about 20% of the seats then, and women sit in about 17% of the seats now. All sorts of inspiring projects have failed to coax women into engineering, yet the study conclusions are the same.

Why are we asking how to fit a square peg into a round hole? Contrary to the notion that women are the missing link, I would argue that the fields themselves are a misfit for our changing society.

Masculinity is being redefined as radically and rapidly as femininity. Engineering is not only alienating women, but evidence suggests the field is losing traction with our changing male population as well.

Although male enrolment continues to rise, Canada’s licensing bodies are worried about retaining trainees. Engineers Canada has found that “the majority of engineering graduates are not working in engineering jobs.”

Women aren’t the only square pegs, men don’t fit either.

Hammering away at the idea that more coaxing, more sugar-coating, more inclusive language will bring women in, has not worked and is not going to work. Engineering is one of the world’s oldest professions, but what would make you want to join?

Its time to reform engineering, not the applicants, and Tyseer Aboulnasr, dean of the faculty of applied science and a professor of electrical engineering at the University of British Columbia knows it:

“Collectively, we have focused too much on the technology side, on building things. Women tend to want to help people and choose careers that allow them to make a meaningful contribution to society… [s]omehow we lost the message that engineering can improve people’s lives.” ~ The Globe and Mail, 2010, Nov 9

Ironically, BC is the province with the lowest female enrolment in engineering.

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About ahemmayispeak

Environmentalist Egalitarian Engineer Writer There, I finally said it. View all posts by ahemmayispeak

9 responses to “Shift the gender paradigm in engineering

  • genderneutrallanguage

    There are two sides of the same coin here. It is good and just to look at the low rate of female participation in engineering. This is not the only field of study that exists. Women are 17% of engineers. Men are less than 7% of teachers. Gender exclusion works both ways. We can not fix the problem of gendered fields of study with out looking at all fields with strong gender bias.

    • ahem_mayispeak

      Yes, and when do we talk about men and their changing roles? Just this morning I asked my son to put some quieter music on, like Adele, “No, I don’t like woman singers.” Somehow, at some time between this week and last, someone convinced him that boys don’t like female singers. We are still missing half of the equality story.

      • genderneutrallanguage

        First, don’t jump to conclusions about your son. Male and female singers sound very different. A preference for male singers may just be a preference for the deeper fuller sound of a man’s voice. It’s probably not sexism of being convinced of anything.
        On changing male gender roles, shamming will not work. This has been the primary tactic, and it’s driven men OUT OF teaching no into teaching. We need to offer incentives. There are scholarships for women in math. We need to offer scholarships for men in childhood education. We need incentives for men.

  • ahem_mayispeak

    Yes, and by suggesting incentives to attract men to teaching, you do exactly as I am suggesting: Opening the conversation about men instead of treating them as though they are not their own special interest group.

    On my son, his change of tune, if you’ll pardon the pun, carries with it an undertone that I have heard before. There is more to his abrupt choice than his quality of ear, and he will eventually discuss it with me, in his own time. So please, don’t jump to conclusions about my sensitivities to my son’s subtle signals.

    • genderneutrallanguage

      Many people that see sexism, see it every where. Even when it isn’t actually there. This is very dangerous when it comes to children. That said, you are the parent. You know the child. And you are clearly approaching this in a good way. There was a post on The Good Men Project about how his 6 year old son was a rapist for kissing a girl. Clearly not every one approaches parenting in a rational way. Keep doing a good job, my concern and comment where unwarranted.

      Opening the conversation about men is a good thing. We agree on that. The conversation needs to include “male fields” and “women’s fields”. We agree on that. The question now is HOW.

      Feminism has proven incapable of hosting this discussion.

      I think that having a men’s special interest group is a good way to go. It will be very hard for feminism to hijack the Men’s Rights Movement, and make it about women. This will allow the discussion to stay on men, and be productive. It does run the risk of become male-feminism, or masculinism. This is a very real risk.

      Using a more egalitarian banner, Humanism or egalitarianism won’t turn into feminism 2.0, but runs a huge risk of being hijacked by feminism and keeping the discussion only about women.

  • Lisa

    It seems we have two issues here — how to attract people to a specific career and how to retain them. The reality of the workplace is far different than what we are taught and exposed to at university. I don’t know if more women leave engineering than men but I do know that being an engineer opens opportunity’s doors. Engineers aren’t working as engineers, but they ARE working and often thriving.

    Studying engineering taught me more than just physics and gave me opportunities in work/life I would not have had without the status of a professional degree. I’m a mom now and have recently studied a natural therapy. But engineering taught me to be brave and do whatever I want to do.

    Are women missing out on potential opportunities, on being taught how to navigate male dominated environments and utilising their full potential because the curriculum or the message of engineering is too “male” (or maybe it’s just too boring ;))

    At the same time, I will say that I left engineering also because many of the roles just didn’t fit with what I wanted to do with my life. They didn’t fullfill me. I agree that is more of a question that modern corporate culture is not adapting to what people want out of life — both women AND men. And I became a mom. How many engineering jobs do you know that would let me work part time?

    As for teachers — I’d wager a bet that there aren’t more male teachers because there just aren’t enough teaching jobs and teachers don’t make enough money. No it’s not all men care about, but young men are probably encouraged to study something that will make them ‘successful’ rather than just something they find interesting, and ‘success’ is often still measured by how much money you can make when considering a career to pursue.

    Good or bad, there needs to be a balance of both.

  • ahem_mayispeak

    I agree Lisa, we have a distorted valuation of careers.

    I had the opposite experience in engineering, and my confidence was quickly eroded while I worked in my profession. Continuing on in academia felt like a retreat, which pangs me even now.

    Feminists argue that feminism is by definition egalitarian, but that has never sat well with me. So, genderneutrallanguage I’m with you, in that it would be feminism by another name. However, it would at least give men the space to open their mouths.

  • Aaron French

    Throughout history gender roles as well as racial roles were assumed by higher society. Contemporary culture is witnessing a homogenization of diversity where previously prescribed roles are shifting boundaries. It is very interesting to analyze the constructs of society as we have reached a fortunate era in human progressivism where we have an essentially collective urge to shift the currents of historic roles. My personal opinion is that we’ve reached an intellectual understanding of equality but our physiological urges are making this a hazy transition. Thanks for the article. I could never be an engineer! Keep after it!

  • ahem_mayispeak

    Reblogged this on Environmentalist Egalitarian Engineer and commented:

    A recent article in Huff Post Canada made me think of this post:
    I connect with Mr. Bolen and wonder how my son figure out what it is to be a man.

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