Women have indeed come a long way in the corporate arena as one may no longer be surprised to find them doing jobs that were classified as unconventional some two or three decades ago. While there is some representation of the female gender within the engineering sector, one cannot ignore the fact that women are still minorities in this field. There is a need to understand why this is the case i.e. the reasons behind it and the challenges or opportunities that women go through as they tassel it out in such a male-dominated industry.
As of 2005, there was still a sharp divide between men and women in engineering. Demographic surveys in this arena show that only ten percent of engineers working for other persons were women. However, some disparities exist depending on the type of engineering specialty being examined. For instance, it was found that there was about thirteen percent representation of women in chemical engineering, fourteen percent in metallurgical engineering and seventeen percent in industrial engineering. Other engineering specialties such as mechanical, optical, software, nuclear, aerospace, and electrical have a female representation of ten percent or lower. It should be noted that these statistics are not replicated in other sciences; there are about forty-four point six percent women in biological sciences and fifty-three percent in the medical sciences. This, therefore, implies that the engineering sector should be a cause for concern for women and other gender studies stakeholders (Woodmansee 265).
On the other hand, there are some positive changes within IT-based engineering professions. As of 2005, women in computer engineering account for thirty percent of the members of this profession. A substantial number of women are also being recruited into the military to work as software engineers, electrical engineers and other types of engineers. Growth projections for specialists in this sector are quite high.
It should be noted that even in their small numbers, women have contributed so much to the field of engineering. There are so many examples of the kinds of inventions that women have made in this field and some of them include: the spread spectrum radio, antifungal Nystatin, non-reflective glass, optical tunable lasers, pyrotechnic signaling and so many more. Also, over the past two decades, women have been granted more inventor patents than ever before. This number has increased by a whopping fifteen percent. Furthermore many large engineering companies are now led by women with some of them holding posts as CEOs while others perform in their capacity as chief engineers, software architects, product engineers and many more. Even though their percentages are small, one cannot ignore the contributions that women have made and can make in the economy as a result of their efforts in this sector (Wilson 26).
Why the divide between male and female engineers?
Studies have shown that a series of social factors play a tremendous role in discouraging women from pursuing careers in engineering. Some of these messages start as far back as elementary school. Generally speaking, girls are often discouraged from having an upfront and aggressive attitude in school (Gerber 49) Those who seem very interested in-class activities or in learning may be branded as antisocial by their colleagues. This is usually worse when a girl likes the sciences or mathematics. In high school, such individuals may even miss prom dates because of their inclinations. Teachers too can be blamed for this gender divide because they often encourage boys to pursue sciences and this eventually leads them into the engineering profession. The truth of the matter is that such stereotypes have been existent from time immemorial. Society has often assumed that women are just not predisposed to become engineers. Such signals are therefore received by girls from an early age. They eventually believe what they hear and this causes them to limit their choices even when their natural interests are in the sciences (National Academy of Sciences 59).
Such women therefore operate under the misguided perception that they are not capable of doing an engineering course. They sometimes think that this is not even an option that is available to them. The sciences require a high degree of tenacity as they are quite challenging. When young women have been told all their lives that it is unnatural to have such interests, their confidence eventually wears out and they eventually lack the willpower to make it in engineering. Out of no fault of their own, such persons are highly insecure about their abilities and usually opt to stick to conventional careers; this therefore explains the underrepresentation in the sector of engineering (Blosser 12).
There is a substantial lack of role models within the engineering profession. Girls do not have inspiration for making it to such careers because they cannot find replicas of themselves in such avenues. This is also in line with the fact that there are few industrial opportunities available to women (Markahma 51).
Women also face a very hostile working environment as engineers. They tend to be sidelined for jobs when there is a choice between a man and a woman. Their colleagues often misunderstand them as being too irritable. Additionally, their work is overly analyzed or criticized for imperfections as it is perceived that they are not as capable as their counterparts. Since leaders and male employees in engineering lack a commitment to ending these hostile occurrences then a constant number of women tend to venture out into other fields or choose not to enter into the sector in the first place thus perpetuating a cycle of underrepresentation.
Challenges faced by women in engineering professions
Those women who are brave enough to challenge the status quo and go for engineering courses are often subjected to unpleasant experiences and may find it harder than usual to climb the ladder of success. For instance, in the university or college setting, it is often common to find resistance from male colleagues who study alongside their female counterparts. These male students often try to make women feel less about themselves and their abilities in the profession. They often like pointing to their colleagues that they may get jobs only because of their gender and diversity recruitments rather than on their merits. Even during practical work in class, some male students may often criticize their female counterparts if they make any mistakes. The result of these kinds of treatment is that the female students have to prove themselves time and time again. Their work must be exceptional to be free from unwarranted criticisms and this gives female engineering students immense pressure in college (RCESP 21).
Not only do such attitudes affect female engineering students in the classroom setting alone but they often permeate into their social lives as well. In order for such individuals to live in harmony with their colleagues, they often find that they may have to behave like men in order to fit in. This delineates them from non-engineering peers who often treat them as too masculine. What this implies is that female engineering student have to make a sacrifice between their potential careers and their social lives and more often they are forced to choose the former. Because so many of these women lack motivational programs, it becomes exceedingly difficult for them to juggle all the latter social challenges with their academic work. The course becomes more than they can handle and they are often tempted to go into other less strenuous fields or careers.
When women make it into the corporate arena, there are several issues that they deal with that make it exceedingly difficult for them to carry on. For instance, some of their supervisors may subconsciously send signals that cause women to feel less equal. For instance, a young female engineer once commented that every time her supervisor at work was talking about cutting or welding, he would automatically look at the men in the group as if to infer that they were more cut out for those kinds of things. Such attitudes from superiors are more common than people would like to admit and this is causing female engineers to underperform. Also, some employers have very little experience with female engineers and this causes them to carry forward ills committed by one female engineer to the entire group. This problem of stereotyping all women because of one person’s mistakes arises out of a lack of exposure to this gender in engineering (Kevles 95).
One cannot ignore the numerous human resource arguments that have been brought out by employers who refuse to hire female engineers. Some business owners assert that women will be more committed to raising a family than to commit to their jobs. Consequently adherents to this belief will refrain from hiring them because they are apprehensive of the time and resources that will be lost during maternity leaves and child-rearing. Clearly, this is a misguided notion because there are some support programs that can be instituted to curb any losses. These employers ought to look at what occurs in other professions where women are the majority.
In line with the latter assumption is the fact that females are usually written off as being unsociable. Some employers believe that women are too emotional or they can’t fit in with males who have a sense of humor or who like to do things in a certain way. Perhaps more serious is the accusation that women do not possess the biological makeup required to do certain practical engineering tasks. For instance supervisors may allocate all the work involved in programming a certain software program for an internet service to a female; however when it comes to installation of the actual satellite, males will be preferred over females. Employers therefore tend to assume that women who carry out such jobs are incapable of hands-on work and may therefore become liabilities to them (Byko 15). However, what these employers forget is that for a woman to enter into such a field, she thought about the intricacies of the job and can therefore possess the ability to carry it out.
Perhaps the biggest problem that women face in the engineering profession is with regard to their underrepresentation. Because there are already few women in the sector, their employers, workers and supervisors will likely be male. Such individuals, therefore, create workplace rules and policies that only favor themselves. Employers are likely to be more comfortable with people who look and think like them. They are also likely to be scared of the legal implications of having a female employee. Some assume that workplace harassment litigations are likely to rise when they hire women or assume that the government will dictate to them what they can or cannot pay their female employees. Such companies therefore refrain from hiring women out of these fears. Women must therefore battle the male-dominated occurrences until they reach a critical mass where they can influence work practices.
The way forward
Studies show that universities are dispensing fewer engineers into the corporate arena. This implies that there are tremendous opportunities for the few who make it out there in terms of career development as well as enumeration packages. Within the United States, it is projected that demand will exceed supply for engineers and this implies that both men and women will have a substantial opportunity to make it in this career. It should be noted that there are several innovations that are in the pipeline. They have the potential to transform people’s lives within the nation and outside of it. It would therefore be a wonderful opportunity for women if they were involved in this amazing chance (Weitekamp 33)
However, for the latter issues to occur then there may be a need to alter a few things in the engineering industry. First of all schools should use various media outlets and programs to train girls on career choices in engineering. Teachers themselves need to change their teaching styles such that girls and boys gain confidence in pursuing the sciences. Mentorship programs ought to be instated to encourage females and these should start as early as elementary school. Problem-solving skills need to be changed within the engineering profession and there should also be a commitment on leaders’ part concerning female employees. Administration and evaluation criteria should be such that they are gender-neutral and one sex should not be perceived to be given preferential treatment over the other. Lastly, society needs to be told about the accomplishments that women have made in the field of engineering so as to encourage their appreciation.
Women in engineering are confronted with the enormous challenge of being pioneers in the sector as denoted by their low percentages in these professions. Consequently, teachers, engineering leaders, male colleagues, and other stakeholders must alter their alienating mentalities to reap the benefits of having a diverse workforce.
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Byko, Maureen. “Challenges and opportunities for women in science and engineering.” Journal of Metallurgy 4.5(2005): 23. Web.
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National Academy of Sciences. Women faculty and students in US engineering. NAP report, 2006. Web.
Research council of engineering and scientific personnel (RCESP). Women engineers and scientists – why so few. NAP report. 2006. Web.
Weitekamp, Margaret. US’s first women in space. NY: Wiley and Sons, 2004. Print.
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