Gender Issues in Engineering

2009.09.18

Balance. It’s important. And in engineering, it’s non-existent. Women make up less than 10% of the workforce in civil engineering. Indeed, I work in an office without a single female engineer. I find it to be an unfortunate situation. We don’t go out of our way to hire males, but they just don’t materialize when it comes time to hire. My undergraduate engineering class had a majority of women. My lab partner in grad school was Natalie. It has always made me wonder why engineers have such a hard time attracting women to the industry.

The first issue to resolve is whether or not this matters. It does matter. We do need women in engineering. A diversity of opinions is a good thing. Science has also shown that women are more risk-aware, and this is a great quality in an engineer.

Women can also help engineering by providing balance in the workplace. My own experiences are merely anecdotal, but I have found that women engineers do provide balance in the workplace. They are more aware of the social impacts of their design, a key piece of understanding the sustainability debate.

While I am merely writing a post on this issue, there are many people who spend their entire careers trying to help. For example, Society of Women Engineers is a great resource.

For many years, engineers have been trying to involve young women in engineering by encouraging them to enroll in engineering school and providing mentorship opportunities. This has been a good start, but it hasn’t had much of an effect. We need to do even more. I would suggest that we need to focus on the community of engineers.

In the educational environment, groups like SWE have played an important role in establishing groups within colleges and universities. The problem is these groups are not a community. Substituting an environment with a minority of women with one of only women does not fix the original problem. A real community will have a balance of people from different backgrounds of similar proportions as society.

I suppose this might be considered discriminatory, but I would suggest that program acceptance criteria be reviewed. Nobody wants a position denied to them because of who they are, so we must be careful. I propose that programs accept students based on skills that are important in the engineering workplace, beyond mathematical skills. Communication, social welfare work, and teamwork skills are very important, so schools should emphasize those skills in the acceptance process.

Whatever educational institutions may decide, they should not protect or coddle female students. If a student is underperforming, then they should never be given higher grades or special opportunities. This will shatter any community currently existing amongst the students, and will turn feelings against professors.

In the office environment, the issues are much more pervasive. How can anyone change the opinions of an entire society. Women engineers are working against the prevailing winds from day one. These are common opinions that women face:

  • women make poor leaders
  • women will leave the workplace after pregnancy
  • women should not take jobs away from men
  • women do not have enough professional clout
  • women deserve to be harassed because they are women

A business owner can create opportunities for women engineers by providing a workplace absent of these opinions. A no-tolerance policy on these issues may be painful, but after following through on the first couple of problems then the culture shift will take place quickly.

Other issues that will help retain women engineers involve improving the work/life balance. There is a general reluctance to hire engineers as part-time employees. Many engineering company owners complain about the lack of engineers available to hire, but it doesn’t seem like many of them have considered a new part-time employee arrangement that would allow working mothers to balance work and family life. This could be a low cost, high quality source of labor. In fact, I bet some mothers would work just for the sake of providing quality health insurance for their family and maintaining their own career.

Of course, when it comes to field engineers, I think there are major issues that must be addressed. I think large engineering companies should retain a legal specialist who pursues harassment issues arising from site visits. Once again, a no-tolerance policy goes a long way to maintaining professional behavior, even from an industry famous for tolerating harassment. After a few court appearances, I am sure even a construction worker can spot the developing patterns.

UPDATE: One of my friends suggested that companies can turn directly to the SWE organizations of the schools they recruit from, encouraging female participation in the resume seeking process. He also blamed society for discouraging intelligent women from pursuing engineering school appointments and funneling them into technical schools (his experience from Kansas & Kentucky).

FURTHER UPDATE: Economix has posted an interesting map comparing gender differences in pay. While I did not address equal pay for equal work in my entry above, you can safely assume that women will earn statistically less for similar quality work. How much less? To give an anecdotal example, a good friend recently discovered that out of 112 engineering managers in her company she was number 111 on the pay scale.

This was in spite of having an advanced degree, winning praise and awards for her work and management skills, and completing many successful projects. She was performing at the top and getting paid at the bottom. This could happen to anyone, but it usually happens to women. Talk with your friends, investigate pay rates for your location, or hire a compensation specialist. But don’t assume that your employer will be fair just because you are working hard.