As evidenced by the ratio of males-to-females at Mines, it is safe to say that most engineers in the world today are males. However, the reason for this disproportion is not because males are naturally more gifted in engineering than their female counterparts according to Dr. Erin Cech of Stanford University, who recently presented on Gender and Engineering at a SWE Hennebach lecture.
According to Cech, the reason for the discrimination in the workforce arises mainly from social pressures. Until the 20th century, women were generally discouraged and in some cases, forbidden to go to college.
Beginning in the 1800s, engineering was a new field and was seen as predominantly masculine with large, unwieldy, and odorous machinery. That image changed when World War II forced many women to take over the roles that men had left to go fight overseas. But, after the war ended, the pressure returned for women to relinquish the positions they had taken over during the war and retreat to the home.
While women pushed to enter the engineering field, the women’s rights movement spent the 20th century fighting for equality in the legal system. In 1919 Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. In 1963 the government passed the Equal Pay Act, which made it illegal to pay women lower rates than men for the same job strictly on the basis of their sex. One year later congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bared discrimination in employment on the basis of race and sex.
Up until the 1960s many engineering colleges prohibited women from applying to their institutions. According to Cech, “After the passage of Title IX the doors were flung open for women legally.” Despite these improvements there is still discrimination in the workforce and especially in math and science related fields such as engineering.
Cech introduced a common myth today which says “that women’s representation in engineering continues to increase steadily. We just need to be patient and eventually we will reach 50-50.” Cech argued against this theory, pointing out that women hold only 19% of management and only 15% of top management positions in science and engineering industries. Furthermore, women make about 85 cents on each dollar that a male makes for essentially the same work. As a UMass student revealed, “One thing that really bugs me about being an intern and a young girl is that the people whom I work with don’t take me seriously… A fair amount of the old men… treat me like I know nothing… I never used to really care, but now when it interferes with my profession it just irritates me.”
Cech described another myth that says that “women just aren’t as good at math and science as men.” However, GPAs and SAT scores are similar between the two genders. Men generally do better in math SAT scores in the US while in other countries such as Iceland, women do better across the board in math and science related fields.
Cech says this shows that cultural and societal difference are the reason for the discrepancy. Societies push young boys and girls to develop different likes and dislikes and different abilities. Teachers in elementary school may tend to treat boys and girls differently. They encourage the math and science interests of males and call on them when talking about math and science topics more frequently than they call on girls. The reverse happens for language arts and social science topics. This adds up to differences in interests and abilities between the genders by the time students reach middle school.
Then, the students enter high school, “the crucial time career decision-making coincides with the time people feel the most pressure to live up to feminine and masculine ideals.” Furthermore, it is during theses years that teenagers ask themselves “what am I good at?” And even with such a simple question as this, boys and girls still tend to differ in how they think of their attributes.
According to Cech, research in social psychology says that “if you compare boys and girls that preform equally in math, girls tend to underestimate their abilities in math and lack confidence in it and boys tend to overestimate their abilities in math and their confidence levels in that.” This leads to girls being less likely to think they are good at math and science subjects, and less likely to go into a math and science based work field. Instead, women choose to go into fields more commonly associated with language arts, health, or psychology.
Interestingly, men are not the only ones to perpetuate these issues. A study of female executives in science and technology firms asked, “What do you believe is the most important factor holding women back from advancement to corporate leadership?” 59% answered that it was due to common stereotypes and exclusion, another 14% said it was because of lack of required experience and 27% said that women lacked of individual motivation and desire.
Cech added that women must speak up about the issue. She said, “If you personally are experiencing some kind of bias and think it might be bias, it probably is bias and it shouldn’t be tolerated.” Cech concluded her lecture with a quote from philosopher De Beauvior who was told “you think thus and such because you are a woman.” De Beauvior answered, “Au contraire, I think thus and such because it is true.”
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