While many fields have increasing numbers of women in roles of authority, a consideration of women in engineering does not show a concomitant rise. This is primarily due to social factors, not biologically determined faculties. What is growing painfully apparent is that the trend of empowerment of women does not always permeate university departments or influence hiring trends within the field of engineering. This article explores the underlying reasons that have actively prevented or subtly discouraged women from seeking an engineering education. It will also devote time to dispelling the pervasive illogic behind these trends.
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But Girls Are Bad At Math
In the past, women were actively banned from even studying at the college level. The first women in medicine, business, and scientific fields had to fight not only public opinion but laws established to maintain their unequal status. While those laws are, thankfully, relegated to the history books in many cultures, the attitudes that informally act as prevention still hold sway. Even in America, the supposed land of equality, girls are discouraged from pursuing STEM education and subtly steered away from expressing interest in fields such as engineering.
This is because hard science and mathematics are gendered. Along with political and business positions that involve action, power, and decision-making, STEM fields are still informally considered the realm of men. Rockets and fast cars are in the sole purview of boys, and little girls play with dolls. One might think that the culture had moved past this insulting dichotomy, but research indicates that on a subsumed level, beneath formal speech, many Americans still feel this way.
When asking if women make good engineers, it’s important to note that none of the aptitudes or the required intellectual capacities are sex-specific. But by allowing negative stereotypes to influence girls at the earliest stages of mathematical and science education, the dearth of women in engineering positions becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Female students, according to a report compiled by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) indicates that young female students support a disproportionate stress burden of these stereotypical beliefs when completing math or science tests.
Unicorns and Schematics
Given that America still genders its STEM subjects and actively or subtly discourages girls and young women from obtaining the instruction and pursuing the paths of curiosity associated with engineering, is it any wonder that their presence in the associated professional or scholarly communities is rare? But that rareness is often still misattributed as evidence that women are not competent at engineering tasks in a general sense. Those who pursue and hold professional distinctions are often characterized as anomalous, unfeminine, and excessively driven at the expense of traditionally valued feminine domains.
However, the increasing number of female engineers in other cultures gives this seemingly biological dichotomy the lie. The characteristics, aptitudes, intellectual capacities, and neurological frameworks that assist engineers in complex mathematics and classical physics are human attributes. If girls are told that they can understand math at an early age and provided with the same level of instruction and encouragement as boys, they will also make excellent engineers, should their individual tastes and talents steer them in that direction.
While women do make excellent engineers, their rare presence in the field will continue until the social perception of STEM as a pastime for boys changes. That entails a shift in behavior, speech, popular imagery, pedagogy, and the departmental policy at many leading research universities. It is well past time that American academia and popular culture acknowledge that women in engineering aren’t deviating from biological predestination, but represent those who persevered in the face of enormous social stigma.
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