A tough calculation

Study: Female students wary of the engineering workplace.

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.

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“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 American Sociological Review.  

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 women — 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.

Topics: Anthropology, Careers, Education, teaching, academics, Special events and guest speakers, Students, Women, Women in engineering


Interesting report. But Experience in India is different. Female Engineering students are dominating in fields like IT, Computer and Electronics and Communication fields.

The number of women enrolled in India’s engineering colleges has increased 122 percent, making headway into a field traditionally dominated by men in India, reports The Hindustan Times. According to data from India’s university regulator, the number has more than doubled in a decade to 276,806 students. “This is an unprecedented jump in enrollment and one that bursts the myth that women do not take up engineering,” said an education-ministry official, adding that if the trend continues, “women are on their way to compete with men equally in this male-dominated field.”

The number of Indian women enrolled in higher-education institutions over all has gone up 70 percent; women now constitute 41 percent of the total higher-education student body in 2009-10.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

If the question is "Why don’t more women enter the male-dominated profession of engineering?", seems to me that you can't get an answer by just studying women who have chosen to go to engineering school; rather you should study women who chose not to go to engineering school as well. Also, labelling engineering as "male-dominated" is rather suggestive of willful bias from the get-go; there are lots of other possible reasons. I am not aware that nursing is "female-dominated", even though many more women choose it as a career than men.

I applaud Ms. Silbey and her colleagues for reporting their findings.

I'm a Civil Engineer (non-registered, by choice) and I've been in the construction business for over 50 years - started young, very young.

Since the early days of my career, little respect has been given to women in the engineering field, including at the university where I received my degree.

In school, there was a stigma attached to being a female engineering student. Most of the engineering instructors were men and their attitudes help form the attitudes of the male engineering students, which already had undergone some formulation.

There is a wide divide between how women should be treated, professionally, and how they are actually treated. Narrowing the gap will require the efforts of women - and men - to educate men - and women about the excitement and challenges of engineering as a profession.

Whoever imagined the role women now play in the space business today.

Best wishes for future research.

I did some corporate internships more than 20 years ago while I was an undergraduate in electrical engineering and also between undergrad and grad school. For my first I was lucky to have a manger that gave me meaningful work. However I noticed another very capable woman engineering intern was given nothing but what appeared to be secretarial tasks. At another internship my final project was revamped by another at the behest of my supervisor even though it worked efficiently and was praised by other managers. If I hadn't been a stubborn personality this might have been quite discouraging.

Once I got a real job, the environment was more accepting. I think it's likely that young women still in engineering school are sensitive to a culture where they are automatically looked on as less capable by some. This is a time period when mentorship and counseling support is key.

Not debating any of your points. But just an additional bit you might want to consider: do a quick google search of "nursing women dominated profession." You'll find 10,100,100 hits. (more so if you do another search on "nursing female dominated profession" though then you run into the problem of potential double-counting.) This suggests to me that nursing is pretty frequently described as woman/female dominated.

Other experienced (or not) people looking down on you is part of the job. Being a woman certainly doesn't help, but it happens to everyone.

Just this week, I was discussing a technical issue with a coworker with much more experience than me at my company. We disagreed and the argument lead to him telling me "well you are wrong and I don't have the time to argue about it so you will just have to do as I say". I was confident about my opinion, so I had to drag other people in the conversation to overturn his decision and we ended up doing as I said.

I could have just been wrong and I have been many times in the past. Convincing people over technical issues is the most important part of the job. He could have been nicer about it, but making technical decisions is not about people working nicely together. Ideas must be attacked and confronted with other ideas. If you can't stand people destroying your arguments, engineering simply isn't for you.

Just because a person's marks (GPA of 3.7 in one cited case) are high does not mean they will make a good engineer. That could be the reason that older engineers are treating a younger engineer with little respect (i.e., because they can't perform the required tasks effectively). I have seen this firsthand. A female satellite comm. engineer working with Internet routers could not even configure and setup a router test environment without assistance from people who weren't even engineers. I think it comes down to confidence. People who are confident in themselves do well.

Your example of a female engineer that works with Internet routers not being able to configure and setup a router test environment without assistance from people who weren't even engineers is surprising and concerning and makes me wonder what else might be going on. I agree, it is probably a lack of confidence and I think it's worth exploring why this might be so given that the person should really be able to perform this task based on her job function. It may be a result of stereotype threat particularly if the person constantly feels they are constantly being judged and having to prove themselves. Hard to have confidence on demand under these conditions.


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