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Women in Engineering at ODU


Women in Engineering at ODU

Copyright © 1999 by Begell House, Inc. Reprinted by permission

Why Aren't There More Women Engineers?

Connie Meinholdt
Department of Psychology University of Missouri, Rolla
Susan L. Murray
Department of Engineering Management
University of Missouri, Rolla

Women have made substantial employment gains in business, law, medicine, and behavioral sciences during the past generation but there has not been a corresponding increase in the number of women engineers. Explanations for the slow progress of women in engineering fields often assume that women do not have the same level of mathematic or visual-spatial skills as men, yet decades of research have not produced solid support for this assumption. This study presents results of a campus survey indicating that many men engineering students have negative attitudes toward women, are generally more confident about their success in engineering, and may receive somewhat more support from peers or mentors than do women students. Focusing efforts on improving the engineering climate may be necessary to increase the numbers of women in engineering careers.


A new generation of young women has grown up to enter college and career fields since the events of the women's movement in the 1970s. The major themes of that era of public interest in women's issues included achieving equal education and employment opportunities for women and men. Evidence of inequalities between women and men in education and employment have been plentiful, along with indicators for improvements. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor reported the average annual income of working women was 59.4% of the average annual income of working men in 1970; by 1996, women's average annual earnings was reported to be 73.8% of the average annual earnings of men (U.S. Department of Labor, 1998). Some of the discrepancy between women's and men's earnings may still be attributed to a division of labor by gender where "pink-collar" jobs and professions dominated by women (e.g., child care, food service, clerical work, nursing, and teaching) tend to have lower pay than Ablue-collar@ jobs and professions dominated by men.

Since 1970 federal and state governments have passed equal opportunity legislation, funded programs, and mandated organizational changes to improve women's access to education and employment opportunities. Many of these intervention efforts have been designed specifically to encourage women to enter traditionally male-dominated and higher paying occupations (e.g., law, medicine, business, construction trades, skilled crafts, science, and engineering) with the assumption that much of the discrepancy between men's and women's earnings could be eliminated. Various intervention programs focused on enhancing women's assertiveness, math skills, self-confidence in their abilities, knowledge of science and engineering career opportunities, skills for handling sexual harassment, and so on. As a result of these various interventions, women have made substantial advances into many traditionally male-dominated occupations and professional fields. For example, by 1996 approximately 49% of professional psychologists, 40% of judges and attorneys, 33% of small business owners, and 26% of medical school faculty in the United States were women (American Association of Medical Colleges, 1998; U.S. Department of Labor, 1998). Employment advances in these professions are especially evident when comparing current employment statistics with those of 1970; then approximately 10% of psychologists, 5% of attorneys and judges, and 10% of physicians were women (Bloom, 1986; Lips, 1993, U.S. Department of Labor, 1998).

However, the number of women entering engineering careers during the past generation has been notably smaller than for many other male-dominated professions. The National Science Foundation reported that in 1990 only 4% of engineers were women. By 1996 the U.S. Department of Labor (1998) estimated that women comprised no more than 7% of individuals in engineering jobs. The percent of engineering degrees awarded to women diminishes from the bachelor's level (20% in 1997) to the Ph.D. level (12% in 1997; American Society of Engineering Educators, 1997) and women comprise even smaller percentages of high status, high paying engineering positions (e.g., approximately 3% of university engineering professors are women; Department of Labor, 1998). It is interesting to note the discrepancies in statistics that are reported by various professional and government organizations, concerning women in engineering For example, the U.S. Department of Education reported that 17% of bachelor degrees in engineering were awarded to women in 1995; the U.S. Department of Labor women in 1996 as reported by (7% or less). What happened to the other 10% of women earning engineering degrees?

A central question that we wish to examine is, AWhy are so few women entering and succeeding in engineering careers?@. We will briefly review some of the research and intervention efforts aimed at changing women in some way so that they can be more successful in engineering fields. We also will consider whether men's attitudes or perceptions about women in engineering may serve as an obstacle to women's success. Results of a campus climate survey are presented in an effort to understand whether men might contribute to creating a hostile environment for women in engineering. Specifically we were interested in women's versus men's general attitude towards women, perceptions of sexual discrimination, and the kinds of interactions that these students have with peers and professors. Further, we will explore whether some of these interactions are communicating to women students that they should make negative judgments about their own abilities to succeed in engineering careers.

Several explanations have been offered for why so few women are entering engineering careers. Many of these reasons suggest that women are lacking some essential quality required for engineering tasks. For example, it has been suggested that women's math skills, visual-spatial abilities, interests, or self-confidence is somehow "less than" men's and therefore less than what is necessary to succeed in engineering. A brief review of the research on gender differences in math, visual-spatial perceptions, interests, and self-confidence can help to assess the merits of these various explanations.


Women Focused Explanations

Women's Mathematic and Visual-Spatial Reasoning Abilities