Why Are There Fewer Women in Engineering?

What about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) draws in men, but scares off women?

When I walked into my AP Physics class at the beginning of the year, I looked around to see that I was the only girl. As a young woman in high school who has always been interested in science and math, I could no longer fight the incessant need to find out why there are consistently less girls. What about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) draws in men, but scares off women? It is no secret that women are underrepresented in STEM fields. Statistics of workforce population, tenured professors and student population all show that men are still dominating the sciences, specifically engineering. What is not as seen, however, is the struggles that women in engineering face because of this disparity. According to the Society of Women Engineers, only 13% of engineers in the workforce are women. A female engineer from the UK states that “the feeling of being a minority is always present.” Engineering is difficult on its own, but women have the added challenge of having to overcome blatant and underlying bias against them. 

When tackling this question, my first hypotheses, similar to many, were that ‘women just don’t like science’ and ‘women are scared of the “hard sciences” because of their intimidating challenge’. Although these reasons may be true for some women, it didn’t account for the reasons why women are leaving STEM at such a high rate as well. Only 30% of women who graduate with a bachelors in engineering are still in the field 20 years later. Meg Urry, the current director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, believes that “the women leaving the field are some of the best scientists we have trained.” 

In an extensive study done by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the authors reached the conclusion that it is illogical to attribute the underrepresentation of women to biological differences. They also found that high school girls, on average, had higher GPAs than their male peers in math and science. Even so, they scored lower on high stakes exams, such as AP tests and the SAT’s. This difference is further explored when looking at the psychology behind it. One possible explanation could be the ‘Stereotype Effect’ –  the idea that if someone is the only something (such as a woman) in the room, then they will do poorly on an exam simply because they believe they are less capable because they are the only one. As Eileen Pollack states in her memoir, “no study has proven women to be less talented, less effective, less productive or less committed scientists than men”. If there’s no difference in biological capability, then why has there been a constant trend of women going into science and engineering at a shockingly lower rate than men? 

The gender differences in society is one aspect to take into account. Londa Schiebinger, a professor at Stanford, expresses that “girls are raised to be modest, while boys learn to exaggerate their intelligence, their success, their prospects in life, even their height.” Girls who have been raised to underestimate their talents will think worse of themselves which can reflect in their performance and influence their academic choices. Studies from the AAUW concluded that girls assess mathematical abilities lower than boys of the same achievement level. Stanford sociology professor, Shelley Correll, determined through her research that “boys do not pursue mathematical activities at a higher rate than girls do because they are better at mathematics. They do so because they think they are better.” 

Eileen Pollack, a writer who graduated from Yale in physics as one of two women in her class, digs into the exact questions that I had been asking in her memoir The Only Woman in the Room. In it, she addresses her own discovery of science when she writes “maybe I fell in love with calculus because, unlike geometry and trigonometry, it didn’t seem to be designed for men”. She points out how in textbooks and other resources, pictures show scientists as being a white man in a lab coat. On top of that, textbook problems seemed to favor men because they often feature traditionally masculine topics, like football or baseball. In research and industry, women frequently receive small, subliminal messages that they don’t belong. This is seen through required attire, such as gloves and jackets, clearly designed for the average male when they are too big for the average woman. Jo Handelsmen, a microbiology professor, contributes to Pollack’s memoir by stating “women spend their lives resisting the stereotype of the male scientist. And the men don’t even realize they’ve been getting all that subliminal encouragement all along”. These small pieces build up to create an environment where many women do not feel like they belong, while reinforcing the men that they do.  

The discrimination and hardships women face in science is not exclusive to America. In a 2012 study by the American Institute of Physics, 15,000 physicists across 130 countries participated. The results showed that in almost all cultures, women reported less access to lab space, funding, office space, travel money, and equipment: all of which are necessary for a successful scientist. In conversation with female engineers throughout this project, nearly all of them have shared their own version of a story consisting of blatant sexism by peers, faculty, or organizations.

Even with these challenges, many women persevere to become scientists, and science is ever better because of it. For example, air bags were originally designed by mainly men, so they were designed for men. As Larissa Neitner writes, this resulted in a “20-40% chance of serious injury or death for a woman using a design that tested fine for men”. Only in 2008 did the US Department of Transportation change to require the use of female dummies in airbag testing. Instances such as these bring attention to the need for diversity in engineering and design fields. Women, as well as other minority groups, can bring unique experience and problem solving that is crucial for the advancement of science. 

Women in engineering face challenges in all stages of their education and career, which discourages many from continuing. Additionally, women are not the only challenged or underrepresented group in tech and engineering fields. The LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups also experience underrepresentation and discrimination. According to Science News, five percent of engineers in the workforce are african american, nine percent are hispanic and thirteen percent are asian. In a study of women in engineering in the office place, latina and african american women reported feeling more excluded as well as having the added challenge of overcoming racial biases. When addressing the conversation of women in STEM, it is necessary to bring the perspective of other minorities into the discussion. 

Seema Peters is a systems engineer who grew up overseas, but attended college and now works in industry in the US. Even though she was one of the only girls in her STEM classes both outside of and in the US, she recalls that “I view the US as a more positive environment because people talk about women in STEM so much here that there is a focus on bringing women up the ranks.” Progress in representation cannot be accomplished without recognizing inequalities. Continuing to talk about the issues that women and minorities face in engineering is essential to improve the educational and working environment. 

Rather than focusing on how future generations will combat this, right now, we must continue the discussion of women in engineering and reaffirm young women in their capabilities. We can actively make engineering a more inclusive environment by celebrating the accomplishments women and minorities have already made. While efforts continue to improve the engineering environment for women, there is still progress to be made. I hope to see a world where a girl can walk into her AP physics class at the beginning of the year with confidence, knowing that she will be met with camaraderie by her teacher and peers. When she looks around the classroom, she’ll see fellow young women with the opportunities and encouragement for success.