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Persistent Social Influences Discourage Women from Engineering Careers

By Laurie A. Shuster

An analysis of journals kept by engineering students reveals that negative work experiences often discourage women in their pursuit of engineering careers.

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A study of journals kept by young engineers reveals that women are often discouraged by negative experiences in group projects, internships, and summer jobs. Many find themselves pushed aside from technical work and relegated to menial or managerial jobs. Courtesy of MIT

June 21, 2016—It has become a recurring and disappointing refrain: women leave the engineering profession at faster rates than men. In one recent surveyconducted by the American Psychological Association, data revealed that nearly 40 percent of women who earn engineering degrees quit the profession or never enter the field at all. And according to the National Science Foundation (NSF), while 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women, only 13 percent of the engineering workforce is female.

Theories abound as to why this occurs, ranging from the time, money, and effort required to obtain the necessary degrees, to the lack of work-life balance options in the workplace, to personal or cultural reasons. But a new study, based not on surveys but on personal diaries, reveals another possibility: persistent gender biases and stereotypes that are still prevalent in the working world. The study revealed that when women try to work in teams or gain experience through internships or summer jobs, they often find themselves pushed into menial tasks, their contributions marginalized in a way that crushes their spirits and squeezes the joy out of the engineering experience.

Susan S. Silbey, Ph.D., the Leon and Anne Goldberg professor of the humanities, sociology, and anthropology at MIT and a professor of behavioral and policy sciences at MIT's Sloan School of Management, worked with three other researchers—Carroll Seron, Ph.D., a professor of criminology, law, and society at University of California Irvine; Erin Cech, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at the Rice University, and Brian Rubineau, Ph.D., an associate professor of organizational behavior at McGill University—to study women's early experiences in engineering. They paid a nominal fee to 40 engineering students at MIT, Olin, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to keep a twice-weekly journal of their education and early work experiences, and used an analytical model to characterize those journal entries—more than 3,000 of them—and discern patterns. The findings of their research, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, were published in the paper "Persistence Is Cultural: Professional Socialization and the Reproduction of Sex Segregation`" in the journal Work and Occupations .

Silbey says that very clear trends emerged, particularly with regard to the women's group interactions and internships or summer jobs. In groups, the women often found themselves in managerial rather than technical roles. "At first, they couldn't contain their enthusiasm," Silbey says. "But then it turned out, the women didn't do the technical work." And many became discouraged.

One example noted in the paper came from a student who described an incident in which two women students had been working alone together on a robotics project, making progress and enjoying their efforts. Later, a few male students joined the group, and the women found themselves doing menial tasks while, according the journal writer, "the guys went and had all the fun in the machine shop."

And this was far from an isolated incident. "There were lots of examples of this," Silbey says.

Persistent societal forces that reward men for being competitive and women for being collaborative may be in part to blame, Silbey says. "Some women will take being relegated to managerial roles as an opportunity for leadership," she points out. "But others find that it excludes them from the fun," and from the problem-solving nature of engineering that drew them to the field in the first place.

In some cases, the students' experiences were more overtly sexist. One journal entry describes an all-female team that came in second out of 15 groups in a school design competition. The journal writer wrote that while taking a photograph of the women, the professor remarked, "You guys look like professional catalog models; this picture could go in a catalog and you could sell big time."

Appearances were a topic of discussion at internships as well—but only for the female students. In one extreme case, a sponsor told a female engineer, "No tank tops, now. We wouldn't want to distract the guys," according to the paper. By contrast, Silbey says that the male students who wrote about their experiences at internships were likely to say, "We had this amazing experience, presenting our work to older, more experienced, more educated engineers, and they took us seriously."

"For many women, their first encounter with collaboration is to be treated in gender-stereotypical ways," the paper states. "Almost without exception, we find that the men interpret the experience of internships and summer jobs as a positive experience." But the women leave those experiences questioning "the commitment to a socially conscious agenda that was a key motivator for them in the first place." For example, the woman who was told not to wear a tank top wrote: "The problem is that now I'm not sure if I can see myself being happy with an engineering job…And there are so many other things that I find interesting. ..."

What could turn this situation around? Programs that encourage a rotation of roles within a group so that each member gets to experience and succeed at different aspects of a job, would help, she says. Training in professional conduct can succeed, but only if all employees understand and accept the need for such programs, she says.

What may help most is simply overt support for women who have the courage to stand up to cultural influences and specific incidents of inappropriate behavior as they happen. "It's going to take some extraordinary women to speak out," Silbey says. "And they need support networks."

Women are often socialized not to question others and are reluctant to draw attention to themselves, especially when they already stand out by being one of the only females in a room, Silbey points out. "Women who are willing to do that need to be supported."


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