“Put the kettle on, love”: how sexism is forcing women from engineering

As a young engineer, you’re likely to possess the sort of skills that many employers covet, yet we regularly hear about shortfalls in the sector, particularly amongst female recruits.

Everyone involved in engineering has an opinion on how this situation has come about and how it could be rectified, but one factor often overlooked with regard to female engineers is that of overt, in your face sexism.

The fact that this persists – along with other forms of unacceptable, outmoded forms of behaviour – makes for uncomfortable reading, yet a study conducted in the USA and Canada has found that sexism is alive and well and driving women away from engineering.

According to Prof Brian Rubineau of Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, female engineers are leaving an already male-dominated engineering field due to a culture that does not take them seriously.

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.

Their longitudinal study followed 700 students from four schools – MIT, UMass, Olin College of Engineering, and the women-only Picker Engineering Program at Smith College – during their four years of college and again five years after they graduated.

The study examined students’ 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 with much of the hands-on aspects of engineering 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.

The Student Engineer contacted Prof Rubineau to discuss the project and lessons that can be taken from it.

Question: Were the experiences of the 700 students compared with an equivalent number of male students at the same stage in their careers? If so, did any of the males experience similar negative experiences during internships in relation to the work they were given to do and the levels of responsibility they assumed?

Answer: The Work & Occupations article was based on diary entries from both men and women, both engineers and non-engineers. There were a total of 40 diarists (21 women & 19 men) who provided diary entries twice a month over the four years of their college education for a total of over 3,000 total entries. The diarists had all indicated an interest in a STEM major during their first year of college, but not all were engineers, and many changed their major plans over the course of their time in college. The other panel members completed annual surveys.

Q: In what ways did ‘blatant sexual harassment’ manifest itself? Did any of the women subject to such behaviour take their complaints to the HR departments at the companies they interned in?

A: The diarists reported being told explicitly that women were not suited for engineering, but only for getting coffee, or that women in engineering firms were distractions to the men working there. We only had information from the diarists provided to us via their entries. Some diarists did report that they shared their negative experiences with friends, co-workers, or college-based advisors, but we did not receive any reports of formal HR complaints.

Q: In the UK we often hear that mentors within a company can make a significant difference to a woman’s career in engineering. Were any of the 700 students given access to a mentor, and how did this impact their internship?

A: In the most recent follow-up post-graduation survey of the panel, we did ask about mentorship experiences. We have not yet analysed these data, but look forward to doing so soon. Our analysis of the diary entries did not reveal any consistent theme or findings about mentor effects on internship experiences.

Q: What percentage of the 700’s experience could be classified as ‘positive’? What made the experience positive, and what lessons can less progressive companies take from them?

A: We did observe a curious paradox when comparing the diary entries and the survey implications of the full 700-student panel.

The paradox is that although it was common for women in engineering internships to report in their diaries first-hand experiences of blatant sexism, analysis of the survey data also reveals that women’s participation in an internship is associated with greater engineering persistence compared to women who did not have an internship experience. In fact the persistence in engineering among women with internship experiences is not significantly different from the persistence in engineering among men with internship experiences. We are currently exploring research opportunities to resolve this paradox.

Q: Did any patterns emerge regarding the men who behaved in a sexist manner toward the female engineers on internship?’”

A: Diarists reported their own experiences. We had no reports from men describing their own participation in sexist behaviours. Among women reporting sexist experiences in their diaries, the men involved in those experiences were more commonly firm employees and less commonly fellow interns.