She Could Design a Bridge for This Gap…if You’d Let Her
For as long as there have been engineers, there has been a gender gap in engineering (probably). In other words, women’s struggle to break into the male-dominated profession is nothing new, but it is real, and it hurts us all.
In 1965, AAUW set out to analyze what the future held for women in the field of engineering. At that time, less than a depressing 1 percent of engineering graduates were women. Would there be improvements, or would women continue to account for such a small fraction of engineers? To answer this question, the AAUW Journal published an article in October 1965: Are There Women in Engineering’s Future?
For the article, author John B. Parrish relied on a survey of 182 companies and agencies that employed engineers and found that 177 of them provided data related to gender. Of those 177 employers, only 36 percent employed women engineers — a total of 623 women. Surprisingly, although the numbers were still paltry, there had actually been a recent increase in the hiring of women engineers because of the explosion of space technology in the 1950s and 60s.
The employers that said they did not currently hire women cited several reasons for their decision. They claimed that women did not apply for the available positions. They felt that the jobs were not suitable for women because these positions traditionally involved irregular hours, the use of heavy equipment, and the possibility of work-related travel. Some employers said that due to previously negative experiences employing women, their future hiring practices favored men! It’s shocking, but not all that different from the kinds of excuses and biases we still hear about today.
On a positive note, those survey respondents who did hire women engineers in the 50s and 60s had favorable impressions of them. They cited a declining prejudice against women engineers due to the nature of the current market: New technologies marked a shift away from heavy machinery (traditionally handled by men) and a simultaneous increase in the need to staff short-term positions. Both of these changes were considered to be in favor of women.
In the article, Parrish also used data from the Society of Women Engineers. Of the organization’s 266 members, most indicated that they had a favorable experience in their profession and a willingness to recommend it to other women.
So if those 266 women engineers’ experiences were positive, why were there so few women in engineering? And if employers who hired women rated them highly, why did women make up only 1 percent of engineers? Parrish attempted to explain this paradox by pointing to several limiting factors of women’s participation in the field.
The first explanation was the advice gap. Friends and relatives often discouraged women from entering science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Next was the education gap. Too few girls took math and science classes in school, subjects that are necessary to enroll in engineering courses in college. The final reason that Parrish gave for the lack of women in engineering was the information gap. Although there was a wealth of occupational information available for women considering engineering, as one AAUW member wrote in response to the article, ‘It is as if someone stamped the literature [with] ‘for men only.'” Another said, “In this country, a woman entering engineering is in a strictly find-and-do-it-yourself type of environment.”
Sadly, much of this article still rings true today. But so do the lessons learned from it; back in 1965, Parrish suggested that one way to remedy these gaps was for educational institutions to make engineering more accessible to women. Today, the pool of research on women in engineering is growing, and so are solutions like STEM programs for middle school girls and recommendations for policy makers and employers.
Are there women in engineering’s future? Absolutely, if AAUW has anything to say about it.
The fall 2015 issue of AAUW Outlook is full of stories inspired by how to change the fields of engineering and technology for women.
Getting and keeping more girls interested in engineering is crucial. And there’s something you can do about it right now.
Why are there still not enough women in these critical fields? What can we all do to change that?