Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Why Won't Jane Go to Engineering School?

Interesting article-- here's the Reader's Digest version:
The percentage of female lawyers doubled in three years (from 9.5 percent in 1971 to 20.1 percent in 1974). By 1981 it was 35.8 percent... By 1996, the percentage climbed to 44.4... Although some claims about discrimination and a salary gap between men and women in the law persist, there is no doubt that the scene has changed dramatically... The number of women in medicine and law is projected to stabilize in about a decade, at close to 50 percent.

Which brings us to our profession: engineering. The participation of women in engineering, in spite of some increases in the last two decades, continues to be anemic. Between 1983 and 2000 the percentage of female engineers in the U.S. workforce rose from 5.8 percent to just 10.9 percent... No matter how we look at these numbers and at related statistics, the conclusion is that we are not moving toward parity; by and large, we are not moving at all.

Young women are not dumb. The problem is not that they need to change. The problem is that we need to change. In the view of many young people, women especially, engineering represents a collection of majors that promise hard work during college, often in a tense and demanding atmosphere, with the prospect of ultimately gaining a stressful job of questionable permanence. What will help us most is not to say that this ain’t so, but to make it so that it ain’t.

Here are two ideas to start the process: whether we like it or not, the current engineering curriculum has demonstrated itself to be strongly oriented toward males. As unfashionable and unseemly as it may sound, the time may have come to try consciously to develop an engineering curriculum aimed deliberately at young women... One likely outcome may be that this new reengineered curriculum would also appeal to many talented men who are repelled by the same deficiencies of the current curriculum that have driven most women away.

Second, we need to work with industry and experts in occupational choices, labor, economy, psychology, and popular culture to develop new engineering workplace models. These models would be designed to be in better harmony with the tastes, sensitivities, lifestyle, and family obligations of the modern, educated middle-class woman. I realize this too may sound a bit out of style; after all, we are supposed to enjoy full equality and exhibit unquestionable sameness by now. However, the reality is that with only 10 percent of engineers who are women, the engineering workplace is anything but equal. In other professions and occupations the workplace evolution has occurred naturally, shaped by market forces and social pressures. In engineering we may have to give it a little push.


Ilana said...

It really is crazy how few women go into engineering. I am thinking about doing my thesis on how to get more girls to go towards engineering.

Patterson said...

What does this mean:

"...whether we like it or not, the current engineering curriculum has demonstrated itself to be strongly oriented toward males."

What, are you building penis pumps all day long, with playmate pinups on the walls of the lab?

Seriously - can you put that into context?

Bob said...

I've re-read the full article and I don't think the author specifically addresses that assertion. I can only speculate.

Engineering curriculum is typically very cut and dried. There is only one right answer, and the path to the solution is rigorous and often not very exciting. I think women may be drawn more to the law and even medicine because there is more room for interpretation and creativity.

Of course I'm being stereotypical - you sort of have to in order to make this argument. The same could be said of creative men, not just women, which is actually a point the author makes.

Patterson said...

So, the "Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars" defense. Interesting.