Women who go to college intending to become engineers stay in the profession less often than men, because they tend to feel marginalised, especially during internships or team-based educational activities, a new study has found.
In those situations, gender dynamics seem to generate more opportunities for men to work on the most challenging problems, while women tend to be assigned routine tasks or simple managerial duties, researchers said.
The negative group dynamics women tend to experience during team-based work projects makes the profession less appealing, they said.
“It turns out gender makes a big difference. It is a cultural phenomenon,” said Susan Silbey from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.
As a result of their experiences at these moments, women who have developed high expectations for their profession – expecting to make a positive social impact as engineers – can become disillusioned with their career prospects.
Overall, about 20 per cent of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women, but only 13 per cent of the engineering workforce is female, researchers said.
Numerous explanations have been offered for this discrepancy, including 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, they said.
For the study, researchers asked more than 40 undergraduate engineering students to keep twice-monthly diaries. The students attended four institutions.
This generated more than 3,000 individual diary entries that researchers systematically examined.
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What emerged was 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, researchers said.
This crops up frequently in the diary entries. To take an 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…”.
Such experiences lead to a problem involving what the researchers call “anticipatory socialisation.”
The women in the study, researchers observed, are more likely than men to say they are entering the field of engineering with the explicit idea that it will be a “socially responsible” profession that will “make a difference in people’s lives.”
The findings were published in the journal Work and Occupations.
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