Study: Female students wary of the engineering workplace

Apr 04, 2012 by Peter Dizikes
Graphic: Christine Daniloff

Why don’t more women enter the male-dominated profession of engineering? Some observers have speculated it may be due to the difficulties of balancing a demanding career with family life. Others have suggested that women may not rate their own technical skills highly enough.

However, a recent paper co-authored by MIT social scientist Susan Silbey, based on a four-year study of female engineering students, offers a different story. Contrary to the stereotype, the study finds, women are no more hesitant than men when it comes to mixing family and work. Moreover, their self-assessments of their math skills do not predict whether they will stick with engineering. Instead, the study finds, women feel less comfortable in engineering than men, and lack the “professional role confidence” that male engineers seem to acquire easily.

“The further they get from the classroom, the more women don’t like the experience,” says Silbey, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities and professor of sociology and anthropology at MIT. “They find there is too large a gap between the idea of being an engineer and the practice of it.” Women who have internships or jobs, she explains, find they “are too often relegated to ‘female’ roles of note-taker, organizer or manager,” and “don’t think they want to do this kind of work.”

Willing to balance family and work

In the study, a team of researchers tracked the progress of 720 students — more than 300 of them in engineering programs — between 2003 and 2007 at four institutions in Massachusetts: MIT, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, Smith College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The team gathered information about the students’ performance and experiences in the engineering profession from surveys, student diaries, interviews with faculty and administrators, and classroom visits.

The results are detailed in a paper, “Professional Role Confidence and Gendered Persistence in Engineering,” published recently in the .  

The researchers found that women in the engineering programs were twice as likely as men to switch to other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors, and that men report higher levels of “intentional persistence,” meaning they are more inclined to picture themselves as engineers five years in the future. The women and men in the study earned similar grades, and the study controlled for classroom achievement, meaning the data shows divergent decisions made by students of similar caliber. And while the men did express more confidence in their math skills, self-confidence about technical skills did not correspond strongly to the career decisions of women.

Surprisingly, the men in the study were seemingly more daunted than the women by the prospect of balancing family commitments with careers. “The women who voiced stronger intention to have families were more likely to stay [in engineering], and the men who voiced stronger intention to have families were more likely to leave,” Silbey says. “We do not have an explanation yet for that, but it’s a fact that needs to be explored.”

The critical factor shaping the decisions of women, however, was their perception of the engineering workplace. Some women in the study arrived at this view through bad experiences in engineering internships. As one student at the University of Massachusetts told the researchers: “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 and I’m only working … because my dad works there. What they don’t know is that I have a 3.7 GPA and am practically acing all of my engineering classes.”

As a result, the paper notes, many women find it difficult to “bear the burden of proving to others that, despite gendered expectations, they are skilled engineers,” and seek other professional disciplines.

Silbey’s co-authors on the paper are Erin Cech, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University and the lead author of the paper; Brian Rubineau ’93, PhD ’07, a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University; and Caroll Seron, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine. The study became part of the independent doctoral research of Cech and Rubineau. It was conducted with the assistance of the MIT and Cornell survey units, and supported by the National Science Foundation.

Series of studies underway

To be sure, problems of gender integration in the workplace are hardly limited to engineering. However, as Silbey notes, many other white-collar professions that have been historically male-dominated in the past, such as law, have seen greater shifts in terms of gender representation.

Silbey suggests that this particular contrast may have occurred because the legal profession more easily accommodates competing intellectual perspectives; or as she says, the law is “a basically pluralist, heterogeneous environment that is tolerant of variation,” at least in comparison to engineering. That characteristic may have made it easier for a critical mass of women to enter law in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, as the authors state in the paper, they “hope others will continue this research with larger samples and extend it to other professions,” to draw a more complete picture of how “professional role confidence” affects career choices.

Advocates for women in the engineering workplace say the study sheds light on a phenomenon that will require continued analysis. “We owe a debt to the authors for their research into a little-understood persistence from credential acquisition to career practice,” says Betty Shanahan, executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, a nonprofit group in Chicago. Shanahan adds, “Their insight and hopefully subsequent research can offer academic institutions, professional societies, and the engineering profession with interventions to increase the persistence of qualified — and men — into engineering careers.”

Silbey and the co-authors of this paper are themselves engaged in multiple follow-up projects — partly using additional data from their survey of undergraduates — to pursue these and other questions. One paper they are working on directly compares the legal and engineering professions; another looks at relative salary differences in engineering in other fields.

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User comments : 23

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AWaB
4.3 / 5 (6) Apr 04, 2012
This article is pretty pathetic.

are too often relegated to female roles of note-taker, organizer or manager, and dont think they want to do this kind of work.


It's called being an intern. All interns, male or female, are relegated to this task! All rookie engineers are also relegated to this task. I'm a senior engineer (engineer IV) and if I'm the least experienced or least knowledgeable about a topic in the room, I am given the task. Admins are few and far between so this is just a fact of lean business.

many women find it difficult to bear the burden of proving to others that, despite gendered expectations, they are skilled engineers,


Every engineer must do this. You don't get a diploma and expect to be given multi-million dollar projects!

It's disgusting that these 'scientists' (if it's not math-based, it's not science) try and spin this as a gender issue.
thematrix606
1.9 / 5 (9) Apr 04, 2012
"Why dont more women enter the male-dominated profession of engineering? "

To answer that question: they are weak.

Actually, from my personal experience in a software/hardware company, I notice that females want to be treated equally, but just don't put in half the work that their male counter parts do.

For whatever reason, if you want to be treated equally but only do half the work. What do you expect? :)
Benni
2.7 / 5 (7) Apr 04, 2012
Actually, from my personal experience in a software/hardware company, I notice that females want to be treated equally, but just don't put in half the work that their male counter parts do.

For whatever reason, if you want to be treated equally but only do half the work. What do you expect? :)


Same experience with me. My undergrad class of about 100 started with about 15 feamales, one graduated. With the men 1 in four graduated. The fact that I point this out will undoubtedly be constued by mathematically challenged sociologists as evidence of my bias against women.
DoubleD
5 / 5 (2) Apr 04, 2012
School is school. Homework and tests crammed in around partying. Being a high performer in a professional situation is orders of magnitude beyond. Apples and oranges, folks.
greg_woulf
5 / 5 (2) Apr 04, 2012
I think the point is that women have a low self image not that the field is somehow unfair to women. It's hard to tell, at times the author seems to state that the field is unfair as well as perceived as unfair.

I've been working for almost 30 years and I'd say that percentage wise the women and men in the field have the same quality bell chart. Some are good and some are bad for both men and women. The number of men vs women seems about 90/10 to me, but both have good and bad workers.

10th grade in high school is where all my math classes starting leaning toward male students, and my son is in 10th this year and his is 80% male. That's definitely not a published study, but it seems that there's something there to me, maybe societal, maybe gender based.

I know that I've had more women engineer supervisors and leads over men even in a field dominated by men, so I don't think is blatantly unfair to women.
Benni
1 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2012

I've been working for almost 30 years and I'd say that percentage wise the women and men in the field have the same quality bell chart. Some are good and some are bad for both men and women. The number of men vs women seems about 90/10 to me, but both have good and bad workers.

I know that I've had more women engineer supervisors and leads over men even in a field dominated by men, so I don't think is blatantly unfair to women.


Greg, you're looking at the "bias issue" sociologists are trying to impose on a non-mathematically challenged portion of the population (engineers), they push to place the 10% of women engineering grads to the most visible positions so they can make claims "women are equal to men in the field", in the meantime the women in those positions are not even doing "engineering" work, they just have a corner office overseeing those of us who are the designers of complex systems about which they know almost nothing except in application methodolgy.
Corban
5 / 5 (5) Apr 04, 2012
Umm, what?

I've been working in my STEM field for 3-5 years, and I still consider myself inadequate, despite improving the whole department's productivity. I have someone with 20 yrs experience as a mentor, and I am constantly informed of better ways, and my own shortcomings.

That vibrant and persistent inadequacy is the way it should be. The day you feel nothing pushing you off balance, be afraid for you have entered the void.

In fact any man, woman or squirrel who is pleasantly satisfied with their learning curve should find another field, because that is abnormal =P
MCPtz
5 / 5 (2) Apr 04, 2012
I agree with AWaB. I do not see outright sexism in any workplace nor have I heard about it from my female peers, those who graduated plus/minus one year from me.

At first one thinks this article is meant to help women, but upon further analysis, it bases its conclusions on sexist stereotypes. All note-takers are females? More like all junior scientists are likely to be tedious note-takers.

There is either a huge misunderstanding, or I'd simply ignore this article and its original author from now on.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.1 / 5 (37) Apr 04, 2012
It is good for Capitalism.

http://www.youtub...W7fRal1w
dschlink
5 / 5 (3) Apr 04, 2012
Yes, the reality of engineering is the first years are filled with boring tasks. Other than software development, I can't think of any area where you get to do interesting work right off.
Terriva
2 / 5 (4) Apr 04, 2012
Women don't like many things, because their brains aren't hardwired for it. It's not only about programming and similar computer stuffs, but for example about the construction of electronic devices or ham radio. It's a favourite entertainment for men - but the very rare hobby for women. Ironically, absolute majority of consumer electronics is assembled just with women.

IMO women cannot get the psychical satisfaction from finding of optimal solution and/or from making things together. Even little boys and girls do prefer different toys spontaneously when given such an opportunity. It's not an IQ stuff - it's a motivational stuff and it's deeply hardwired in brains.
hyongx
3 / 5 (2) Apr 05, 2012
All these comments have largely focused on the men versus the women as individuals. My comment is as follows - If I'm being trained on a peice of equipment, or a new technique, while in the company of a female student of identical academic standing, 90% of eye contact and direct conversation is directed towards me or other males. I would say that this is an example of subconscious biases ubiquitously present in the field of engineering. Regardless of the intellectual differences between the sexes, the reality of being the minority in a male dominated field is probably something hard to understand from the outside.
shydoc
1 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2012
I have been working in HR dealing with succession management. One thing we noticed that there seems to be more male at the highest level than female. Initially, we made the conclusion that at the highest level male are simply better than female. However, our opinion some what have changed, we noticed that male are very focussed on a single thing and became very good at it. while female are jack of all trades and master of none.
Benni
3 / 5 (6) Apr 05, 2012
I have been working in HR dealing with succession management. One thing we noticed that there seems to be more male at the highest level than female. Initially, we made the conclusion that at the highest level male are simply better than female. However, our opinion some what have changed, we noticed that male are very focussed on a single thing and became very good at it. while female are jack of all trades and master of none.


This is gobblygook, get out of your Personnell office & go out into the field with those of us who actually do Engineering work. Your selective perspective of female engineers only promotes competency problems within our profession, of course you are the last ones to apologize to accident victims when airplanes fall out of the sky due to faulty design.

Preservation of life & limb is paramount within my engineering design group, & for whatever reason there are no women in it, & what's more we don't care.
ryggesogn2
2.3 / 5 (6) Apr 05, 2012
"As a result, the paper notes, many women find it difficult to bear the burden of proving to others that, despite gendered expectations, they are skilled engineers,"
It is difficult because just out of school they are NOT skilled engineers.
"To become licensed, engineers must complete a four-year college degree, work under a Professional Engineer for at least four years, pass two intensive competency exams and earn a license from their state's licensure board. Then, to retain their licenses, PEs must continually maintain and improve their skills throughout their careers."
A BS degree is just the beginning.
ryggesogn2
1.7 / 5 (6) Apr 05, 2012
Is this typical of female MIT engineering students?
"An MIT student wearing a device on her chest that included lights and wires was arrested at gunpoint at Logan International Airport this morning after authorities thought the contraption was a bomb strapped to her body."
http://www.boston...arr.html
Check out the pictures.
shydoc
3 / 5 (2) Apr 05, 2012
This is gobblygook, get out of your Personnell office & go out into the field with those of us who actually do Engineering work. Your selective perspective of female engineers only promotes competency problems within our profession, of course you are the last ones to apologize to accident victims when airplanes fall out of the sky due to faulty design.

Preservation of life & limb is paramount within my engineering design group, & for whatever reason there are no women in it, & what's more we don't care.


I was simply stating some facts based on our observation. At highest level there simply more male, same goes to the useless category. Female on the other hand are very dependable, responsible and hard working. The difference is probably due to focus.

By the way, my company is in engineering business and employs' thousands of engineer.
AWaB
not rated yet Apr 08, 2012
Shydoc, you should really try leaving your office and actually learning something about what engineers do. Making statements with no information is how airplane wings fall off in mid-flight!
Parsec
3 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2012
"Why dont more women enter the male-dominated profession of engineering? "

To answer that question: they are weak.

Actually, from my personal experience in a software/hardware company, I notice that females want to be treated equally, but just don't put in half the work that their male counter parts do.

For whatever reason, if you want to be treated equally but only do half the work. What do you expect? :)

Your wrong. I have been a professional engineer for 36 years and worked with hundreds of female engineers. Working hard is simply not gender specific. Some people like to work hard, some don't. What reproductive equipment they have installed is simply not deterministic. I include my gay engineering fields on the list.
Vendicar_Decarian
not rated yet Apr 09, 2012
No, but it is typical of Bush's Fatherland Security System.

"Is this typical of female MIT engineering students?" - RyggTard

What is truly sad is that her arrest was for wearing a trivial circuit built from a few lights and resistors that was assembled on a plug prototype board, and not even soldered.

What an embarrassment.

Clearly a freshman.
PCB
5 / 5 (1) Apr 09, 2012
The core issues: 1) (fyi, please apply the word "generally" to all seemingly absolute statements) The best engineers are nerds... nerds have far less ability to filter(Politically Correct edit) "feeling" thoughts and even attempting so is very taxing (slow/confusing) to a nerd's mind... non-nerd males far more easily filter/edit their very natural male feelings and fantasies towards women -on the fly- into Politically Correct, or even Seductive speech and mannerisms (hereafter referred to as BS). 2) The vast majority of women either believe (or desperately want to believe) that the BS is true. 3) When women must work with nerds who are unable to convert the natural male feelings and thoughts that ALL men are thinking into BS for the women, they freak out. 4) This problem will continue to persist because nerds can't help being nerds, and Women will Never give up their fantasies/delusions that ALL men are actually thinking about them they way nerds do, just non-nerds are better at BS.
Ethelred
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 19, 2012
It's disgusting that these 'scientists' (if it's not math-based, it's not science) try and spin this as a gender issue.
Well the rest that post may be OK but this sentence is nonsense.

If it is about learning how things work it is science. Many sciences have little need for math and they can always get a mathematician to help when they need it.

Botony is a science. I have no real interest in it but is science.
Paleontology
Physical Anthropology
Medicine
Psychology - not psychiatry - Freud wrecked that area.
Cultural Anthro is science - as opposed to sociology where they do NEED math but don't seem to have enough of a clue to use it correctly, likely do to the sociologists not wanting science.
Biology

Pretty sure there a more sciences with little need of math.

Math is important in science but don't carried away with claims that it isn't science without math.

In regards to sociology Tom Lehrer has this to sing.
http://www.youtub...II-BJ8hI

Ethelred
thematrix606
1 / 5 (1) May 21, 2012
Your wrong. I have been a professional engineer for 36 years and worked with hundreds of female engineers. Working hard is simply not gender specific. Some people like to work hard, some don't. What reproductive equipment they have installed is simply not deterministic. I include my gay engineering fields on the list.


Too bad you still make grammatical mistakes after 36 years. I already know how much your opinion weights.