Women and Engineering

Occupational segregation by sex is to a large extent a women’s issue, since it is more detrimental for them than for men. Barriers against professional women have been framed in two different ways, emphasizing two stages at which obstacles might occur: a threshold “beyond which gender no longer matters” and a “glass ceiling of gender specific obstacles to advancement into top positions”. In the first, women encounter difficulties advancing into a field but the obstacles fall away once a certain status is reached. In the second there is a particular career level women may attain at which point a blockage occurs to further advancement.

The “threshold effect” presumes that women only face barriers in the early stages of their career, while the “glass ceiling” effect presumes barriers only at high levels of their career, (Etzkowitz et al, 1994). However, it has been found instead that women face barriers to entry and achievement at all stages of career development, not just upon entry into work.

This paper will seek to address the issue of women in professional engineering, defined be McRae et al (1991) as “persons employed in technical work for which the normal qualification is a degree in science, maths or engineering”, and will discuss, (using references from recent research), the processes by which they have been excluded. Barriers to such professions are not simply found as forms of discrimination in the workplace but are rooted in the socialisation of girls and boys from a young age. Much of the literature in this field is tied in closely with that of academic science as the women are from similar academic backgrounds (mathematics and the sciences) and have faced similar issues. The focus of this essay will rest mainly upon engineering, looking at the notion of the ‘glass ceiling’ and using the ‘Pipeline Concept’ as the framework.

Women and Engineering

Despite recent changes, women continue to be representative of a small minority in the field of professional engineering. According to Kirby (1996), female entrants to degree courses in engineering in UK universities are now 15 per cent compared with only 7 per cent in 1984. According to figures by the Equal Opportunities Commission, in December 1999, 5,728 British women were registered with the Engineering Council as Chartered Engineers, Incorporated Engineers or Engineering Technicians, compared with only 478 in 1984 when the Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) initiative was launched. This represents a significant increase, however women still comprised only two per cent of registered engineers.

In terms of cultural image, engineering is regarded as a masculine profession. Throughout history it has been viewed as heavy, dirty and mechanical. These cultural images are very powerful and have assisted in reproducing aspects of occupational segregation whereby engineering, except in the two World Wars, has been perceived as “unsuitable” for women (Evetts, 1998). Until very recently this notion has remained undisturbed and it is for these reasons that women who enter this profession are regarded as unusual. This paper will now consider how the lack of social and professional connections available to most women, together with gender bias and differences in socialisation, create special and unique problems for women at every level of career development.

The ‘Leaky Pipeline’

The reigning model for women entering engineering has been the Pipeline Model, which predicts that if more women enter the education and training end of the pipeline, the result will be more women emptying into the career field and progressing up the career ladder. This model has been criticised, as it does not take into account the possibility that both the pipeline and the “pond” into which it empties might not be neutral. However, it is difficult to disprove the pipeline theory because a typical career path may take 20 years and there have not been sufficient numbers of women at various levels to test the model.

The analysis of such a concept can be useful to studies on the exclusion of women from engineering professions as it highlights the ways in which young women are deterred from such areas of study. In her discussion of gender differences, Dr. Shirley Malcom, Education Advisor to the U.S President Clinton, outlines five major points at which barriers to women and girls’ participation in this field can be identified. The first four points will form the framework of this essay as they encompass the main processes of exclusion for women in engineering.

Sociocultural attitudes

The differential socialisation of men and women is culture specific and can place women under an immediate disadvantage. Social preferences for boy children are common in many cultures of the world. Choices to invest in boy’s education are often made at the expense of girls who are needed in the home with domestic chores. Preconceptions that women’s responsibilities confine them to the home, and expectations that married women will not work outside the home also contribute to restrict girl’s access to education.

As young girls and women, females are socialised to seek help and be help givers rather than to be self-reliant or competitive, as are boys. Girls are encouraged to be good students in so far as they expect to be given a task, complete it well and then receive a reward from an authority figure (Etzkowitz, 1994). However, higher education behaviour is expected to be independent, strategic and without interpersonal support. Many women enter higher education and the field of engineering with a low degree of self-confidence. Studies have shown that, when engineering students were asked to predict the academic performance relative to that of male and female colleagues, “both sexes anticipated that men would outperform women, which was paradoxical as the average female had a higher average than the average male”, (Ott, 1975 cited in Zappert et al 1984).


When girls enter the school system they are discouraged from learning science and technology, either consciously or unconsciously as a result of parent and teacher biases as science and technology are not considered appropriate for girls and are deemed ‘unfeminine’. Cockburn (1985) argues that “…technology enters into our sexual identity: femininity is incompatible with technological competence; to feel too technically competent is to feel too manly”. In this way Cockburn argues that engineering itself will present women with cultural dilemmas.

Teaching materials, textbooks and lectures depict technological studies as a male domain, depriving females of figureheads or role models. Female students may be deterred from considering engineering as a career because of the negative or narrowly defined images of scientists presented by the media and society in general. With limited images of women in engineering, it is harder for young girls and women to imagine themselves in the field. Not surprisingly, girls who study at single-sex schools are more likely to take scientific and technological routes of study than those at co-ed schools, (Devine, 1994).

Academic Positions

Sociocultural attitudes strongly influence the level of women’s participation in the various institutions. Women in engineering have reported that they find their male colleagues condescending and find it hard to break into ridged ‘old boy networks’. A Swedish study found that older men tend not to engage in discussions with women at work, especially those men who are married (Stolte-Heiskanan, 1991, cited in Malcom, 1998). Women’s reproductive and domestic responsibilities are seen to conflict with their professional responsibilities and child-rearing years can collide with important years for professional advancement. They frequently sacrifice their education and career for the sake of the family.

Professional double standards exist when women’s ability and achievements are assessed. Women are not ‘allowed’ to have the same personality traits which are considered important for male success in the workplace. For instance aggressiveness, self-promotion and competitiveness are deemed acceptable and even necessary traits for a successful man, however women would be considered pushy. Women are also required to work twice as hard as men to prove their capabilities.

In a study of the experiences of women in PhD programmes, Etzkowitz et al, 1994, found a series of mechanisms that mitigate against the process of women in academic careers in engineering. First, they identified extra-academic factors such as the differential socialisation of men and women as well as marriage and family as discussed above. Second, the normal working of everyday features of academic sciences, such as advising patterns, have the unintended consequence of excluding women. Previous researchers have found that negative interactional patterns in male advisors relationships with their female graduate students could “…lessen their opportunity for advancement”, (Fox, 1988 cited in Etzkowitz et al, 1994). Thirdly, they found that the so-called ‘male model’ of science discouraged women from full participation.

Science and Technology Professions

Women have the greatest difficulty entering into science and technology professions. Several studies have shown that they have greater difficulty finding employment, they receive fewer promotions and they have less access to managerial positions. In addition to this McGregor and Harding (1996) have identified ‘micro-inequalities’ which are a series of invisible barriers to women’s equal entry to engineering. These include the following:

* Attitudes of male interviewers, which can affect the impartiality of the hiring process

* Women tend to be assigned to less powerful committees, possess fewer budgetary resources and are placed in less centrally located offices

* Women and men exhibit different working styles with women generally operating in a more cooperative and personal mode, while men tend to be more assertive and impersonal (Van Beers, 1996)

* In all of the countries of the world women tend to be the last hired and first fired.

Women will not feel comfortable in a workplace that is hostile to women. Catalyst, a non-profit organisation that works with businesses to effect change for women, conducted a 1991 study of female engineers employed in 30 large organisations. The following issues were found to inhibit female engineer’s productivity: paternalism, sexual harassment and the pressure associated with peer’s allegations of reverse discrimination. Paternalism relates to the belief of male managers that women do not have the physical strength or the technological competence to complete certain tasks. Some women feel trapped in patronising relationships with their companies and unable to develop their own identities and maturity in the workplace. Similarly, if women engineers perceive that others doubt their ability and commitment, they may lose yet more self-confidence and self-esteem.

The numbers of women holding managerial positions have been said to be increasing in recent years (Davidson and Cooper, 1992). However, in her study of the female engineers at the high-tech company ‘Airmax’, Evetts found that it was the male engineers who were able to develop and achieve promotions into the senior managerial positions of company senior staff. Women did not have any difficulties gaining employment at the lower levels of the organisation but did find it difficult to reach upper middle and senior management positions. Although the nature and practice of management is changing to include more team- and project-based work, which is seen to be more woman-orientated, it is not going to be sufficient enough to benefit their careers beyond junior and perhaps middle levels of management.


As is clear from the evidence, processes of exclusion facing women within the field of engineering begin during school years. The socialisation of girls at a young age dictates that science and technology are ‘unfeminine’ subjects within a masculine domain, thus deterring them from selecting engineering as a future profession. They are often discouraged from such career paths by parents and teachers, who regard engineering as ‘…an oily rag profession’ (Devine, 1994). Role modelling has been identified as an effective socialisation process in work life. Due to the limited numbers of women working in this field, there is little or no choice of model. As a result of this women find themselves adhering to the typical male model, losing yet more confidence in themselves and risking further exclusion during academic training and within the workplace.

Within the workplace women are finding it increasingly difficult to break into the so-called ‘old boy networks’, usually consisting of white, middle class males, who have a traditional view on the role of the female. Within these networks professional double standards often exist. These cast a shadow over the capabilities of women, as any form of competitive attitude or self-promotion is seen as bullish behaviour in females. Paternalism and harassment force women out of their jobs, as they cannot develop themselves or mature within their roles.

Finally the glass ceiling issue is still keeping vast numbers of women out of senior level management positions in all areas of the engineering profession. Some organisations have promoted a few women to take up ‘token positions’ (Kanter, 1977 in Evetts, 1997) in various departments and at various levels. It is clear that even though over recent years there has been an increase in women holding managerial positions, it will still be a number of years before the proportion of women significantly increases.

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