Female engineers are leaving an already male-dominated engineering field due to a culture that does not take them seriously, according to Professor Brian Rubineau of Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University.
Rubineau, along with co-authors Carroll Seron (UC Irvine), Erin Cech (University of Michigan) and Susan Silbey (MIT), found that unchallenging projects, blatant sexual harassment and greater isolation from support networks contribute to women’s exit from engineering.
“Although engineering programmes have focused on reforming their curricula to encourage women’s participation, we are finding that social interactions outside of classrooms are contributing substantially to women’s negative experiences of the field. It is clear that engineering schools must broaden their efforts beyond the classroom to ensure they are not only attracting top female talent, but retaining it,” Rubineau says.
Their longitudinal study followed 700 students from four schools – MIT, UMass, Olin College of Engineering, and the women-only Picker Engineering Programme at Smith College – during their four years of college and again five years after they graduated.
The study examined students’ voluntary diary entries and focused on interactions with other students in classes and projects, as well as college culture and future occupational and family expectations.
According to Rubineau, many of the women in the study experienced blatant gender bias in their project teams and internships. “Much of the hands-on aspects of engineering are treated as men’s work, with women relegated to more secretarial duties. This culture of sexism and stereotyping sidelines qualified women, who then often choose a different career path.”
A secondary reason for this marked gender difference has to do with how engineers are perceived in society.
“Women, more so than men, cite engineering’s potential for improving society as their motivation for pursuing a career within the field. But in their internships, women saw only lip service offered towards improving society. Disillusioned, these women are often inclined to change career path to find a better cultural alignment with their values and goals.”