When Ditiro Setlhaolo was a first-year student in telecommunications engineering at the University of Botswana, one lecturer’s negative preconceptions about female engineers almost made her abandon the field. Instead, she switched to electrical engineering. Today, she is a consultant in demand-side energy management and an electrical engineering lecturer at the University of Botswana who works to inspire and support other women in engineering.
“Girls should not believe people who say that women are not clever, because I am evidence that women can reach far,” Setlhaolo told the Nigeria-based African Women in Science and Engineering (AWSE) organization in 2016.
Despite such success stories, gender biases, lack of role models and negative messaging about women’s “brilliance” relative to men’s continue to suppress the number of female engineers worldwide. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimates that women – more than half the world’s population – hold at most 20% of the world’s engineering jobs. The European Union (EU) reports that female scientists and engineers accounted for just 2.8% of the labor force of EU-28 countries in 2013, compared to 4.1% for men.
Graduation rates won’t change those numbers any time soon: the American Society for Engineering Education says that just 21.4% of US engineering undergraduates in 2014 were women; in the EU, 19% of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering were awarded to women in 2014-15.
But female engineering educators are working to change the trend.
“The work that engineers do shapes the future of our world and our society in many ways,” said Beth Holloway, assistant dean of engineering for undergraduate education and director of the Women in Engineering Program (WIEP) at Indiana’s Purdue University. “It’s hard to fathom that all of the most creative, innovative ideas for the future will come from just one half of the population – men. Diverse perspectives are needed to fully optimize solutions, consider new ways of approaching a problem, consider potential unintended negative consequences of a solution or design and fully understand diverse customer needs and wants.”
Recruiting women into engineering is a challenge that must be addressed before, during and after students enter a university, Holloway said.
“We work with pre-college students to try to spark and nurture an interest in engineering, show them positive role models and counteract the less appealing stereotypes of engineers and engineering,” Holloway said. “For our college students, WIEP provides opportunities to engage with mentors and role models and to create a community of support with peers and professionals. We talk about how gender can play out in the workplace and discuss strategies and approaches to mitigate some of those barriers.
“IF COMPANIES WANT MORE MIXED TEAMS – AND IT HAS BEEN PROVEN THAT A MIX OF GENDERS GIVES EFFICIENCY – HALF A DAY SPENT VISITING STUDENTS CAN DELIVER HUGE VALUE.”ANNE-MARIE JOLLY
FOUNDER, INGÉNIEUR AU FÉMININ
“We’ve also worked on improving the climate in the College of Engineering to be more inclusive and welcoming to all our students. Across all our work, we use strategies that are proven effective through research, and we work to add to the research literature by doing research of our own.”
A TRIO OF HURDLES
A 2016 University of Washington (UW) study identified three main factors that drive women away from engineering: a masculine culture that signals – accidentally or intentionally – that women do not belong; a lack of sufficient pre-college exposure to the subject; and gender gaps in beliefs about innate ability.
“Students are basing their educational decisions in large part on their perceptions of the field,” Sapna Cheryan, the report’s lead author and a UW associate professor of psychology, told the UW Today website. “Not having early experience with what a field is really like makes it more likely that they will rely on their stereotypes about that field and who is good at it.”
When a woman does choose to study engineering at the university level, discovering that she is the rare female in her classes may drive her away, a pattern repeated if she prevails and joins an engineering workplace, said Nilanjana Dasgupta, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Brain Science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
“Belonging really determines whether you stick it out in a field that interests you,” Dasgupta told the National Science Foundation, the US government- funded agency that supported her research. “You feel a sense of camaraderie and comfort, or you start losing interest, confidence, and start thinking about leaving for another field.”
Engaging men in the cause, therefore, is as important as inspiring women, Holloway said.
“Many men are not fully aware or do not fully understand the challenges that women in engineering may face, but would be advocates and allies for gender equity if they did,” Holloway said. “We need to be able to have open and honest conversations about unconscious bias and continue to work together to create inclusive organizations where everyone feels a sense of belonging and value.”
Rehema Ndeda, a member of the AWSE, said the profession also needs to address stereotypes such as “the archaic picture of engineering as dark factories, which is unappealing to girls.”
Setlhaolo agrees. When she speaks to school groups, girls routinely ask her if an engineering career would require them to wear overalls and look greasy. “Society does not have a clear understanding of what engineering is and the different branches of engineering,” she said.
“GIRLS SHOULD NOT BELIEVE PEOPLE WHO SAY THAT WOMEN ARE NOT CLEVER, BECAUSE I AM EVIDENCE THAT WOMEN CAN REACH FAR.”DITIRO SETLHAOLO
ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING LECTURER, UNIVERSITY OF BOTSWANA
Role models are essential in battling stereotypes and communicating not only what women can achieve in engineering, but also what the field can give to them in return.
“Engineering is such a diverse profession that it can be fitted to various expectations of the different periods of life,” said Anne-Marie Jolly, vice president of the Commission des titres d’ingénieur (CTI), a France-based organization focused on science and engineering, and founder of Ingénieur au féminin, which supports efforts to encourage and motivate women in engineering. “It is rare to have a profession where, with the same education, you can work abroad or at home, engage in research or go into production management.”
Without role models to show them the way, few women think of becoming engineers.
“The fact that most of the girls go to engineering domains where there are already many women [59% in chemical and agricultural engineering schools] and not to fields where they will be paid as much as boys and where enterprises wait for them [15% in transportation systems, 17% in computer sciences and 19% in electronics] is symptomatic,” Jolly said.
Jolly works with two French engineering associations for women – L’association Française des Femmes Ingénieurs and Femmes & Sciences – to shift the balance by visiting colleges and high schools, providing young women with perhaps their first exposure to a female engineer.
“I explain what engineering is and the pleasure I have gotten from it, and I am joined by younger women engineers or engineering students from the Femmes Ingénieurs association or the Femmes & Sciences association,” Jolly said. “If companies want more mixed teams – and it has been proven that a mix of genders gives efficiency – half a day spent visiting students can deliver huge value.”
Across Germany, universities and engineering departments routinely offer motivational programs for women interested in engineering, which exposes students to the universities’ female engineers.
”Universities all over Germany offer summer programs, mentoring, girls’ days and other activities to attract young women,” said Susanne Ihsen, professor of gender studies in science and engineering at Technical University of Munich (TUM). “There is also a lot of activity, such as role models from industry, to keep female students in the programs.”
Students’ attitudes are not the only ones that need to change, Ihsen said. Educators, too, like Setlhaolo’s first-year lecturer, need to look at how they teach engineering.
“UNIVERSITIES ALL OVER GERMANY OFFER SUMMER PROGRAMS, MENTORING, GIRLS’ DAYS AND OTHER ACTIVITIES TO ATTRACT YOUNG WOMEN" TO ENGINEERING CAREERS.SUSANNE IHSEN
PROFESSOR OF GENDER STUDIES IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING, TECHNICAL UNIVERSITY OF MUNICH
“Activities in cooperation with other disciplines focus on the central problems in changing traditional, male-dominated cultures like engineering,” Ihsen said. “They help to sensitize engineering professors to gender and diversity needs so they can analyze courses in terms of bias, undertake diversity-oriented marketing activities and so on. In my own teaching, I use topics that will interest future engineers, such as Engineering 4.0, which discusses the changes in industry and society and the expectations of employers, customers and citizens.”
In Africa, additional cultural barriers further complicate the challenge of attracting women to engineering. In Botswana, for example, fewer than 2% of engineering students at university are female.
“Economically, in most cases where there is limited funding, the male child will be chosen to pursue a science-based degree, since there is the notion that the girl will probably fail,” AWSE’s Ndeda said. “Other barriers are attitudinal, with girls believing that they are naturally weaker than boys in science and mathematics subjects. These barriers need to be addressed in order to encourage more women to pursue engineering education.”
Role models and mentoring are central to AWSE’s work to break down those barriers.
“Our mwalimu (Swahili for “teacher”) project, conducted in several high schools in Nairobi, aims to train teachers on how to teach girls and encourage them into science, since they are the earliest science role models,” Ndeda said. “Through this project, there has been an increased number of students passing mathematics and science [and] having the opportunity to pursue engineering.”
Mentoring is a critical factor, even after a female engineer enters the workplace.
“It has become increasingly apparent that the presence of a mentor in the workplace tends to encourage women to continue in these careers and even become leaders in their fields,” Ndeda said. “Recently, we worked with Kenyatta University through their Female Enhancement in Science and Technology (KUFEST) program on mentorships. Most of the scientists mentored are currently working in industry and are motivated to continue so.”
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimates that women – more than half of the world’s population – hold at most 20% of the world’s engineering jobs.
Each country faces its own challenges in encouraging and supporting women in engineering, but concerted efforts to help women understand that success is possible and that employers need their insights are beginning to make a difference. With encouragement and inspiring role models, more women will find the confidence to join Setlhaolo in rejecting discouragement and making a positive contribution to engineering.◆