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Study Finds ‘Everyday Sexism’ in Engineering

Monday, June 20, 2016

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A new study sheds light on why women are less likely to stay in the engineering profession.

The reason: Teamwork, or rather, the lack thereof, during pivotal points in their training, according to a group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California, Irvine, and other institutions.

“The negative group dynamics women tend to experience during team-based work projects makes the profession less appealing,” MIT reports, citing the recent study.

Olin College
Michael Maloney via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

For the study, researchers asked more than 40 undergraduate engineering students enrolled at four different institutions to keep diaries. Students from the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering (above) in Needham, MA, participated in the study.

Women feel marginalized, especially during internships, summer work opportunities and other group-driven educational activities, the study finds. In those situations, gender dynamics seem to create more opportunities for men to work on the most challenging problems, while women tend to be assigned routine tasks or simple managerial duties, according to the study.

“It turns out gender makes a big difference [in such settings],” said Susan Silbey, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities, Sociology, and Anthropology at MIT, and co-author of a paper detailing the study’s findings.

Further, the high expectations that women put on the profession, such as expecting to make a positive social impact as engineers, are often shattered as a result of how they are treated in these key situations, the study suggests.

A Layer to the Discussion

Overall, about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women; however, only 13 percent of the engineering workforce is female. Several explanations have emerged to explain the discrepancy, the researchers report. They include:

  • A lack of mentorship for women in the field;
  • A variety of factors that produce less confidence for female engineers; and
  • The demands for women of maintaining a balance between work and family life.

The current study does not necessarily preclude the other explanations, but it offers an additional element to the larger discussion, MIT reports.

Studying the Diaries

For the study, the researchers asked more than 40 undergraduate engineering students to keep twice-monthly diaries. The students were enrolled at MIT, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, Smith College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. More than 3,000 individual diary entries were submitted and the scholars systematically examined them.

woman working on project
© / Geber86

Overall, about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women; however, only 13 percent of the engineering workforce is female.

“What emerges is a picture in which female engineering students are negatively affected at particular moments of their educational terms—especially when they engage in team-based activities outside the classroom, where, in a less structured environment, older gender roles re-emerge,” the researchers suggest.

For example, one student named Kimberly described an episode in a design class in which “two girls in a group had been working on the robot we were building in that class for hours, and the guys in their group came in and within minutes had sentenced them to doing menial tasks while the guys went and had all the fun in the machine shop. We heard the girls complaining about it. … ”

Or, as the paper puts it, “Informal interactions with peers and everyday sexism in teams and internships are particularly salient building blocks of [gender] segregation.”

The researchers add: “For many women, their first encounter with collaboration is to be treated in gender stereotypical ways.”

However, as the researchers state in the paper, “Almost without exception, we find that the men interpret the experience of internships and summer jobs as a positive experience.”

Beyond the Classroom

The researchers suggest that the profession’s gender gap is not precisely rooted in the engineering curriculum or the classroom, which have often been the focus of past scrutiny.

“We think engineering education is quite successful by its own standards,” Silbey says. Moreover, she adds, “The teaching environment is for the most part very successful.”

engineering group
© / DragonImages

The study finds that women feel marginalized during summer work and other opportunities, resulting in many of them choosing to leave the profession.

Silbey argues that other outside methods might have a positive impact on women’s experiences as engineers in training, such as directed internship seminars. She adds, whatever other components education may have, it is useful to remember that “education is a process of socialization.”

Funding for the study was provided by the National Science Foundation.

The paper, “Persistence is Cultural: Professional Socialization and the Reproduction of Sex Segregation,” appears in the latest print issue of the journal Work and Occupations. In addition to Silbey, the co-authors are Carroll Seron, a professor at the University of California at Irvine; Erin Cech, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan; and Brian Rubineau, an associate professor at McGill University.


Tagged categories: Business management; Education; Engineers; Good Technical Practice; Research; Worker training

Comment from Monica Chauviere, (6/20/2016, 12:11 PM)

Odd that the study did not attempt to include (or ask women about) the obvious fact that it is women who give birth and most likely to be the primary care givers. Many new fathers, even though they may be offered parental leave choose not to partake in that benefit. The many women engineers that I (also a mother)worked with, most often had the luxury of being married to a professional bringing home a salary that allowed their decision to NOT return to the workplace after the birth of the first (or second) child.

Comment from peter gibson, (6/20/2016, 12:16 PM)

What about the "girls writing code " nonsense. A lot of men still think certain professions are their " turf " Machismo is still alive and well.

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