Stubborn Obstacles: What’s Hindering Female Engineers?

Is engineering destined to remain a male-dominated field? Not everywhere. In China, 40% of engineers are women, and in the former USSR, women accounted for 58% of the engineering workforce. But in Western countries, and in a large number of emerging economies, the feminization of engineering continues to be very slow, and now seems to have reached a growth limit.

This plateau is of concern to policy experts. For the last decade, the European Commission has highlighted the risks related to the shortage of engineers and has called on member states to draw more widely on the pool of female talent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics warned last year that the demand for computer engineers in the U.S. would see an increase of 36% by the year 2012. It seems urgent in these conditions to train more women. So what are the obstacles?

Experts have examined education systems to learn what problems exist, and many have focused on the American education system. The WebCaspar database of the National Science Foundation shows that in the U.S., women are well represented in the field of scientific studies: in 2005, 45% of graduates in mathematics and 52% of chemistry graduates were women. But in 2007, they obtained only 22.4% of master’s degrees and 20.8% of doctoral degrees.

Clemencia Cosentino, director of the Program for Evaluation and Equity Research with the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., has worked for years on this "severe under representation." She explains that specialized documentation generally highlights the dropout rate in scientific studies, which is higher for girls. This may be true at the graduate level where only 18.5% of girls obtain an engineering degree although they represent 30% of enrolled students. But surveys conducted by Cosentino’s team on a base of 400,000 students show a more determining factor: the low enrollment rate in specialized master’s courses. Once registered, women do not drop out more than men. However, they are comparatively less likely to continue to a doctorate of engineering.

The Leaky Pipeline

College dropouts, low enrollment in master’s programs, and higher abandonment rates at the doctoral level: the U.S. Department of Education, in its National Assessment of Educational Progress, calls it the phenomenon of the "leaky pipeline," or an imbalance between the sexes in higher education. The lack of preparation and support is sometimes highlighted as a reason, but it holds true for boys as well.

What is more significant is the very low percentage of female teachers for specialized courses: less than 10%. And the potential importance of faculty role models for minority groups is well known. Recruitment is done at the local level, but this is now the subject of a proactive policy at the federal level. The U.S. Department of Education has been working for several years to make universities more aware of the gender gap. Europe can draw inspiration from this: after all, it was not until 1992 in France that a woman, Claudine Hermann, was appointed professor at the Ecole Polytechnique.

The issue of few women in engineering is not a Western phenomenon either. As noted by Smita Pareek of the B. K. Birla Institute of Engineering & Technology in India, most engineering courses appear to be devoid of any social relevance. And women give priority to fields characterized by strong interactions and social issues, both on the educational and professional fronts. If engineering schools seek to enroll more girls, as well as boys, she argues, they would have more success emphasizing the social and societal challenges of the profession instead of focusing solely on the technological dimension of the work.

Austrian researcher Anita Thaler, of the Inter-University Research Centre for Technology, Work and Culture in Graz, reached the same conclusion by studying German and Austrian cases. Culturally and socially, she says, the profession remains predominantly associated with its technological dimension, which discourages women. Surveys conducted by the National Council of Engineers and Scientists of France (CNISF) on working engineers have produced similar findings. From the moment they begin their studies, female engineers typically go for fields of study related to social issues, such as life sciences. This overlaps with the fact that women in general have a greater interest in sustainable development and female engineers in particular in research and development.

The issue of professional identity arises as a result. What is an engineer today? Australian researcher Gunilla Burrowes, with the University of Newcastle, notes some sectors such as public works or mining are associated with particularly difficult working conditions and an almost exclusively male environment, which may discourage women. In Australia in particular, the very low rate of women engineers (11% against an average of 20% in other industrialized countries) is linked to the country’s level of economic specialization in raw materials. In France, CNISF surveys point to the same facts: the presence of women engineers is lower in domains directly related to production, whereas they are better represented in R&D. This of course takes us back to working conditions, to the differences between the world of manufacturing and that of the research department. But we can note how strong the stereotypes related to the industrial world are, associating it with images that have little to do with the reality of today.

More broadly speaking, all scientific professions seem to suffer from a lack of attractiveness today. The European Relevance of Science Education (ROSE) survey regularly reviews the interest and motivation of 15-year-olds for scientific and technical professions. For decades in developed countries, there has been a progressive lack of interest in these jobs. And under these circumstances, the differences that have always existed between girls and boys tend to more or less increase.

Existing Workplace Inequalities

In France, the proportion of women engineers under the age of 30 years stopped increasing in 2003, at 27%. Absolute terms only reveal part of the picture. Relatively speaking, between 2007 and 2008, the number of engineers continued to increase, but it happened at a rate that was two times slower than that of all graduates.

This lack of drive is a worrying to companies, especially those in sectors where the demand for graduates is greater than the supply. Major French companies in the automotive, aerospace, energy, rail, and maritime sectors have created the association, "Elles bougent" or "women on the move" in order to support women in scientific vocations. "As part of our diversity policy, we aim to ensure that at least 25% of our workforce hired each year is comprised of young female graduates," explains Jacques Massot, director of human resources at EADS France and honorary president of the association. "It is hard to do better in this area because we use everything the market offers us. There are not enough women in engineering schools and in university science courses."

But education is not the only problem; how women fare in the engineering workplace is another. Vera Uvarova of State Technical University in Orel, Russia, explains how a well-established tradition of gender diversity disintegrated in the 1990s and 2000s. In the mid-1980s, 58% of Russian engineers were women. But, with the collapse of the USSR and its industrial model, the situation reversed, as women were the first to be fired. In 1998, they accounted for 43.3% of engineers, and in 2002, only 40.9%. And the numbers continue to decline. Among the explanations offered by Uvarova is the shift from an environment of almost exclusively administrative work to one of market logic — accompanied by more acute conflict between family and professional life.

Paradoxically, the relative generosity of Russian legislation is a double-edged sword. Women in Russia have three years of parental leave, but there is no support for re-integration in the company and getting skills back up to speed. That’s when the gender gap becomes significant. This situation is accompanied by the reappearance of stereotypes that Uvarova now considers "more profound than in Europe or in the United States."

Similar career inequalities appear throughout the world. Felizitas Sagebiel of the University of Wuppertal (UW) in Germany points out the conflict between a professional world still dominated by male standards — especially when it comes to work hours — and the aspirations of women. They may prefer, at certain points in their career, to work part-time and keep hours that are easier for maintaining a family. In Germany, such arbitrations are particularly difficult and women engineers tend to sacrifice their personal or professional life. Elsewhere in Europe, it may be easier to reconcile the two. But conflicts persist in the attempt to create a work-life balance and most of the time for women it is the career that comes second.

The idea of "not counting one’s hours" seems to be associated with the model of a married man whose wife does not work. This is an already outdated model, but it is widely practiced in an environment still influenced by social and professional codes of the bourgeoisie — even though it now dominated by the children of the middle classes. A growing number of young fathers, who live in family situations different from their elders, with greater sharing of domestic chores, also encounter such difficulties. In this context, it is less the job itself than the working conditions that lack attractiveness. These have been defined in a highly gendered social context, which may be disappearing quickly but still structures relations and provides the keys to success.

The Athena Factor

In all developed countries, engineering jobs are afflicted by what U.S. researchers Sylvia Ann, Carolyn Luce, and Lisa Servon have termed "the Athena Factor," referring to the birth of the Greek goddess. It involves a "brain drain," not out of the country but out of the profession. The factors to blame are persistent wage inequalities and the equally unfair game of career building, which drive a considerable number of women engineers, after a ten-year career, to leave the profession. Career breaks during pregnancy combine with the engineering profession’s limited tolerance of the constraints of family life.

The French sociologist Sophie Pochic explains the distinction must be made between conflicts arising from personal decisions and company exclusion mechanisms. As for the latter, late night meetings, where the most strategic information is shared, "naturally" exclude the men and most often women who must care for their children. For companies, the issue is crucial. It is certainly not in their interest to let go of or to discourage high-potential employees nor to endorse career building that rewards compliance with a social model more than talent and skill.

Jacqueline Laufer of HEC Paris notes that in this regard human resource management is still poorly equipped. "It was set up as if blind to the way in which gender differences intervene in policy making and management practices," she says. This "blindness" results in the implementation of mechanisms that further increase the under representation of women in senior positions, with the well-known secondary effects: less visibility, lower benefits of training, and the rare presence on the boards of directors or executive committees. Which returns to a point made by numerous teachers: the need for real female engineering role models, capable of embodying a "promise" or at least a possibility of success in the career.

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