From World Economic Forum’s Rosamond Hutt: Around 20% of engineering graduates are women, but only 13% of the engineering workforce is female. So why do so many women leave engineering?
While plenty of possible reasons have been mooted, from a lack of mentors for women in the field to the demands of maintaining a work-life balance, a recent study has come up with a new explanation for the discrepancy.
Teamwork is a key requirement in many engineering roles. Yet female engineering students told the researchers they were treated differently by male classmates when working in groups.
The study found that in group situations, especially during internships and summer jobs, women were often given less challenging problems and were relegated to doing routine “managerial and secretarial” tasks instead of the “real” engineering work.
“For many women, their first encounter with collaboration is to be treated in gender stereotypical ways, mostly by their peers,” wrote study co-author Susan Silbey, Professor of Humanities, Sociology and Anthropology at MIT, in an article for the Harvard Business Review.
The study explored how “socialization”, or learning about the culture of engineering, affects women’s future job decisions.
“We found that female students do as well or better than male students in school – but often point to the hegemonic masculine culture of engineering itself as a reason for leaving,” wrote Professor Silbey.
Starting in 2003, the researchers followed 700 engineering students from four institutions in Massachusetts – MIT, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts. They spoke to these students every year during their four years of college and then again five years after they graduated. They also asked 40 of the students (19 men, 21 women) to keep twice-monthly diaries about the educational and career decisions they were making.
One student called Kimberly wrote in her diary: “Two girls in a group had been working on the robot we were building in that class for hours, and the guys in their group came in and within minutes had sentenced them to doing menial tasks while the guys went and had all the fun in the machine shop.”