five articles about women and engineering

ere are five articles about women and engineering. What do these five articles have in common? They were sent to me by men. Thanks guys!

1.Lack of Confidence Spurs Women to leave Engineering

Why do women engineering majors drop out of engineering and switch to other majors? It’s not because women lack competence, it’s because women tend to lack confidence (at least in comparison to their male peers). “As one of the most sex-segregated professions outside the military, engineering carries ingrained notions and biases about men being more naturally suited to the field, which can have self-reinforcing effects.”

A superstar women engineering faculty member whose mannerisms are similar to my own (i.e., she doesn’t ooze confidence) once told/warned me that “a lack of confidence can be interpreted as a lack of competence.”  It sounds like it’s not just the men who incorrectly infer–we women internalize this too.

This study doesn’t capture the incoming college students who are deterred for even selecting a science or engineering major, since their high school teachers keep reminding them about how tough and competitive these majors are (see article #4 below). I realize that these “missing” engineering majors are impossible to track, but I find this issue particularly relevant since I started college as a history major (I had particularly low self-confidence in high school). Luckily, I found my way to engineering.

This study has real implications for those of us who are faculty members in STEM fields. Our words and internal biases can have powerful effects. However, we’ve all had a confident alpha male bomb in our classes and have had non-confident, conscientious superstar students, so I hope we know that appearances can be misleading.

2. Engineering blogs: why women don’t go into engineering

A woman’s competence seems to be a function of what she look like and how much makeup she wears.

This blog post makes me cringe because it hits the mark. An interview with this woman engineer was posted online. The first comment about her professional interview was an inappropriate comment about the relative hotness of women in her field. Many women feel uncomfortable in engineering because a few men in engineering always seem to comment on our appearances first. (Note: I am not blaming all or even most men here). I would guess that this is mainly a maturity issue among undergraduates in engineering, which would again create a bad climate for women engineering students. I’m glad that Punk Rock OR attracts more enlightened men.

3.Why women leave the engineering field

A slew of statistical tests using NSF’s data on former engineering majors suggest some interesting findings. The first is that “women actually don’t leave jobs in science at an above average rate. The difference…comes from the engineering sector.” Why do women disproportionately leave engineering but not other scientific fields? The study’s author finds evidence to suggest that being in “a majority-male environment” leads women to leave engineering. The author claims that work-life balance benefits are nice, but they miss the mark when it comes to retaining women in engineering.

4. Working conditions drive women from engineering

Another NSF sponsored study examines why women leave engineering, and it reports similar results. They find that women don’t leave for family reasons nearly as much as we’ve been led to believe. “Nearly half of the women surveyed who left the engineering field said it was because of working conditions and issues such as a lack of career advancement and low salary.” This corroborates some of the findings in the previously listed study.

5. Girls go Geek…Again

In 1967, the fashion magazine Cosmopolitan featured an article that urged women to become computer scientists. Yes, this is for real. You should really check this blog post out of only for this pictures. In 1987, 42% of software developers were women. However, women computer science majors dropped from 37% in 1984 to 20% in 2006. In the past couple of years, women CS majors have risen at some of the top universities. This blog post by Fog Creek Software delves into the mystery of why the number of women CS majors has ebbed and flowed. My husband (a programmer) found this part of the blog post relevant and actionable:

[O]ne of the things that happens is that women don’t even think they’re qualified for [a computer science position] because it’s advertised in competitive language. The language of competition not only doesn’t appeal to many women, it actually puts them off. Google advertises their Summer of Code with very competitive language. In 2006, GNOME received almost two hundred GSoC applicants – all male. When GNOME advertised an identical program for women, but emphasizing the opportunities for mentorship and learning, they received over a hundred highly qualified female applicants for the three spots they were able to fund.

I have written about women trailblazers in computing once or twice before. I am still floored by how many women worked for the Bell Labs data center in the 1960s. These retro pictures of computing (1940s – 1960s) also feature women. It’s too bad that when we think of computer scientists, we tend to think of men. Apparently, women have always been an integral part of computer science.

Retro women of computing

All articles and links were sent to me be men. Hat tips to Hemanshu Kaul, Red Dave, Aaron Ball, and Christopher Felton.

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4 responses to “five articles about women and engineering

  • prubin73

    You’ve assembled an interesting compendium of articles here!

    I’ve seen articles (there was one in Newsweek a few years back) asserting that good-looking people of both genders do better/get more favorable treatment in general, and I believe that includes a presumption of competence for men. In my undergrad days, we used the phrase “face man” to denote someone who looked like he’d stepped out of a GQ add, appeared self-assured and (on the surface) competent, and was actually clueless. Nowadays you mostly see them running for political office. At the same time, I remember some guys laboring under the unsupported (and unsupportable) assumption that, when it came to women, intelligence and attractiveness summed to a constant. So the less physically attractive women were presumed to be more competent.

    Regarding assertiveness, this also applies to men, the main distinction being that men may be psychologically more prone to acting assertively. (I’ve read allegations to that effect, but I’m not sure to what extent they’re backed by research.) I had an experience in college (officiating a high school fencing meet) where someone much more experienced than I confused my assertiveness with competence, when in fact I was doing something for which I was untrained (and making mistakes that I recognized in hindsight).

  • Laura McLay

    Paul, you bring up a lot of good points, and I suspect you are right about all of them.

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  • Katrina T

    I can’t help but wonder if the decrease in women signing up for “computer science” majors corresponds to an increase in majors not labeled CS but are still related, such as “software engineering” or “computer engineering” (all three are majors at my university, but SE is considered more competitive, relevant, and valuable to the corporations that recruit employees from my school’s talent pool). I mean, it’s still interesting to see the cultural change in views on computer scientists at the time, but there has also been an expansion in major terminology.

    For a non-computer example, we recently created a BS degree in “Biomathematics”, which is interdisciplinary. We’re making fewer mathematicians and fewer biologists (both men and women), but more people are taking to the new degree, because of the usefulness of mathematical insight in modern biological research. I don’t think the ratios have changed, just the focus of those students, you know?

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