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Why Women Leave Engineering

January 7, 2010

So, after a break from blogging due to the end-of-semester rush, I’m back in action with a long list of stuff to post about. I finished my project – I wrote three articles. I submitted two articles about Kaylee Frye and Women in the Trades to Bitch Magazine and submitted the third, a book review on Shop Class as Soulcraft, to the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. So perhaps I will get published!

In any case, I want to keep up with this blog as a much-needed space to discuss gender and engineering topics.

Yesterday, I attended the young alumnae tea at my all-girls high school and was sad to hear several first and second year students discuss plans to switch out of engineering for all of the classic reasons that women leave engineering. According to the Online Ethics Center, those reasons are:

  1. Experienced discouragement and loss of self-esteem from low grades in freshman and sophomore years (77.9%).
  2. Rejected the lifestyle associated with a Science and Engineering (S&E) career (67.9%).
  3. Found conceptual difficulties with S&E coursework (50.0%).
  4. Had problems with the overload and pace of S&E courses (35.7%).
  5. Found a more appealing non-S&E career option (32.1%).
  6. Had problems with poor teaching/unapproachability of S&E faculty (25.0%).
  7. Switched majors to attain a career goal (7.1%).

Of course, they were all planning to switch from engineering to science – so I’m not sure it’s fair to clump science and engineering together like that. This behavior actually reminded me of the recent Sociological Images post on the Fractal Nature of the Gender Binary. As Lisa Wade explains,

Take education (which is, arguably, feminized): we can split it into physical sciences (masculine) and social sciences (feminine). And we can split the physical sciences into biology (dominated these days by women) and physics (dominated by men). So the gender binary has a fractal character.

Of course engineering works in a similar way where there is science (feminine) and engineering (masculine). Then engineering can be split into bio-engineering/industrial engineering (feminine) and electrical/mechanical engineering (masculine).

People often say that it’s easier for women to get into engineering school as a minority – but that is just another way to attack women’s self-confidence. In reality, the women who choose to study engineering are extremely self-selecting and therefore more likely to be qualified. However, once they get to engineering school, those women do not find the support that they need and fool themselves into thinking that they are not doing as well as they actually are. Women need someone to be there to make sure that they know that and don’t leave engineering for the wrong reasons.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Mikell permalink
    January 7, 2010 14:00

    One of the most interesting studies I’ve heard of — from one of my (male) FIRST mentors in high school — was that if you ask a man why he went into engineering, he says, “Because growing up I always loved taking things apart and putting them back together.” If you ask a woman, she’ll say “Because I was good at math and science.”

    That was always my first response when people asked me, too, because though I did like building things — I was doing FIRST, after all — it never struck me as the reason to go into engineering. And when I was nearly failing math and physics my freshman year, I think had I only considered myself an engineer because I was good at math and science, I would have been way more discouraged and potentially have dropped out. What got me through it was knowing that on the “other side” of the math and physics courses, I would get to build cool stuff, and that was worth staying with it.

    So I wonder if that’s a part of it — if you’re failing the coursework that was the entire reason you entered engineering in the first place, why stay with it?

    (By the way, while it is a generalization to say men do THIS while women do THIS, I did notice during one of the early faculty introduction things at Olin, it was pretty much exactly down the gender lines when they explained why they entered engineering in the first place)

  2. January 17, 2010 13:51

    First, I should apologize that this comment is rife with overgeneralizations for the sake of brevity. Anyhow:

    I was in the class right after Mikell at Olin, and was (independently) struck by something similar. I was a TA and spent a lot of time with the first-year students who struggled in math and physics, and when I asked them why they liked engineering so we could figure out what they were already interested in and how to make their studying relevant to that, I did notice a pattern of male students describing something that they’d built or made, and female students describing liking math and science.

    The thing that seemed odd to me was that when I asked a little more, it turned out that the male students had generally also been good (as in grades) at math and science in high school, and the female students had also Made Things (as in FIRST or Science Olympiad or etc). Not necessarily to the same extent for each gender, but… a nontrivial nonzero amount. Small sample size, so high potential for error here, but that’s the pattern my personal experience has generally perceived.

    Does society have different flags for “oh, you should be an engineer” for each gender? If we see a little boy and a little girl building something, and a little boy and a little girl having fun doing math, are we more likely to recommend engineering as a career to the builder-boy and the math-girl? If so, what happens to the builder-girl and the math-boy?

    • February 1, 2010 13:54

      I’m definitely more the builder-girl type. I’m afraid of math. Like, equations with letters (particularly Greek ones) pretending to be numbers? Anxiety attack! But programming? Not much of a problem, usually.

      What happens to us is we get in, then we are forced to take math and science classes. Then everyone tells us “oh, well you’re a programmer, so you must be good at math right?” Or “how are you going to be a programmer if you can’t even do math?” And then we figure that being a builder-type must not be enough and get discouraged and want to drop out of school.

  3. radengineer permalink*
    January 21, 2010 17:45

    That’s such a great point. I never really thought about it that way. It’s so true though. I think society definitely has different flags for women and men entering engineering.

  4. January 21, 2011 01:47

    I think women leave engineering because of society and financial problems but now the situation is changing…

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