Open issues

Will a gendered view of engineering be a catalyst for a new theory?

It is an open question whether a gendered view of engineering is, or would be, a catalyst for the development of a unique theory about the practice of engineering.

One possible way by which such a new view of engineering could develop is through a conjunction of gender informed views and engineering. Engineering education for women is one such intersection.

Engineering and education gender issues

The issue of women and engineering education most often arises when researchers, educational institutions or governments assess the number of women studying engineering, working as engineers or progressing to high levels of management. The results are usually explained using the analogy of a 'pipeline' where the numbers entering education, graduating and advancing through higher levels of industry and academia are tracked over time compared to male equivalents. The results, at least in developed countries, show a relatively low number of women enter engineering schools and the number declining at a greater rate than males once higher levels of education (post-doctoral work) or employment (management) are reached. To counter balance this a range of solutions have been proposed and tried out on the educational front.

An institutional solution: reshaping engineering courses to be more gender appropriate

This approach looks at how university courses can be made more appealing (or less unattractive) to women students. Any search of the literature would show that there are many thoughtful studies on this issue. A recent example is a study by Julie Mills, Mary Ayre and Judith Gill [1] which articulates the issues associated with the engineering education as perceived by women students and makes suggestions for a gender inclusive engineering methodology. We can perhaps categorise this approach as a university-initiated or top-down approach to enhancing engineering course material and teaching.

An alternate solution: overcoming course bias by developing in students a critical ability to identify underlying biases

This approach taken by Donna Riley [2] is motivated by the transformative possibilities of an explicitly feminist approach in engineering education [3]. What we can take out of this is the idea that a questioning and critical student mind is better able discriminate against biases inherent in engineering education and, as a result, be more confident, better motivated and more intellectually satisfied.

This involves developing in students the ability to critically analyse information in a practical way: it is done by having the student analyse and critique what is immediately at hand; their curriculum and the assumptions behind their own engineering course. To teach students to do this is a systematic manner, one technique Riley and her colleagues have used is critical discourse analysis. While this is standard fare in the study of history and the arts, it is unusual in engineering. One example of this is the study of Michael Foucault's Truth and Power [4]. There Foucault looks at how to distil the positive nature of power (to do good) as well as divine the ensemble of rules which can be used to separate particular truths from falsehood. He ties these together by noting that truth is in a circular relationship with systems of power. Systems of power produce and sustain particular truths, and truth induces additional effects of power. Riley's students have used these themes to analysis the aims and basis of the thermodynamic course at Smith College.

We could categorise this as student driven or 'bottom up' approach to tackling biases in engineering education and employment.

What if the big obstacles to women having career paths have been eliminated but problems remain?

Gerhard Sonnert and Gerald Holton have put forth an interesting theory about long-term career outcomes in science in an effort to explain how women can do less well [5]. They examined the career paths of National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellowship awardees in the USA to discern the degree of gender disparity in the average career outcome. They conclude that from a statistical perspective the carer outcomes of women in the study group were less desirable than their male cohort.

In looking for reasons, they considered two main theories: a 'deficit model' which focusses on mechanisms which formally or informally exclude women scientists; and the 'difference model' which relies on the existance of deeply ingrained differences in the behaviour, outlook and goals between genders. To explain how both these might translated into affect, they propose two mechanisms.

The first mechanism explains micro-outcomes: the 'kick-reaction' mechanism by Jonathan Cole and Burton Singer when applied to the theories says negative-kicks occur according to the 'deficit model' and a less than optimum reaction or response to these could result from factors which make up the 'difference model'.

The second mechanism seeks to explains how longer-term outcomes arise: it says that the accumulation of 'micro' advantages and disadvantages over the course of a career could lead to more disadvantages or less advantages accruing for women compared to men.

Sonnert and Holton's study, of what we can say was a very elite group, indeed found women were at a relative disadvantage in fields where women did not already reach higher numbers (i.e. physical sciences, mathematics and engineering) but there was no statistical difference in career progress through academic ranks where the number of women had reached a 'critical mass' (i.e. biology).

In looking at possible reasons for these outcomes, Sonnert and Holton consider, and elaborate on, a range of factors on careers;

  • the presence of discrimination, exclusion or tokenism,
  • differences in socialization and confidence,
  • differences in scientific and professional styles,
  • differences in preferred methodologies,
  • effects of marriage and parenthood, and
  • getting and taking chances,

and note that '[i]t may now be futile to search for the big remaining "obstacle" to women's career parity in the sciences ... [and] [a] greater variety of targeted efforts may be more advantageous.'

In light of the factors considered by the authors and the conclusions they have drawn, there may be a way of approaching engineering which is particularily well suited for women.

Do men and women have different psychological attitudes?

Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis have looked for evidence for discerning gender from psychological attitudes [6].

While physical characteristics, such as body shape and strength, are good predictors of gender, do attitudes belong clearly to one gender or the other? The conclusion that Carothers and Reis came to is that while there were some differences in the average male and average female responses to range of questions about psychological attitudes, the male and female responses overlapped to such an extent that there was no clear gender identification possible from the combined set of responses.

Of interest to us here is that in this study there were questions about science-inclination and about fear-of-success. In both cases there were no clear gender-based inclinations. So if these conclusions were able to be extrapolated to the field of engineering, then on the face of it, the attitude to engineering ought to be no different for females and males.

However Carothers and Reis speculate that it is possible for strong cultural rules or practices to alter otherwise uniformily held attitudes, so that the attitudes then fall into distinct gender-based categories. What might this mean for us in the engineering field? Could the way engineering is taught or practiced create attitudes which are polarised along gender lines when no such division existed for people beginning study or entering the profession?

Identity integration leads to creative performance

Chi-Ying Cheng, Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and Fiona Lee [7] compared creative task performance of two sets of female engineering students. One group had 'experience[d] conflict between gender identity (being a women) and their professional identity (working in a male dominated profession or a stereotypical masculine job)'. This conflict-perceiving group 'often describe themselves as "not belonging", as being "out of place" or being "displaced" in the professional world, and such feelings contribute to a strong sense of internal conflict'.

The study set out to test whether the group of women who instead 'focus[ed] on the compatibility between their gender and professional identities (rather than the hardships and struggles of being a minority-group member) .. [were likely] to be able to better integrate these [social and professional] identities .. and achieve higher levels of creativity in domains where their dual identies intersect'.

The study involved asking all participants to design a new mobile communications device that would appeal to customers. To set up the intersection of dual identities, the study cleverly sub-divided this task into two categories: one designing devices for 'women' which therefore required knowledge from both gender and professional identities. The other task category was to design for 'college students': that is, with no gender specific requirement.

In this way the authors were able to confirm that a more creative approach was likely when a person could integrate their social and professional identities when asked to do a task requiring knowledge from both identities.

Will these views or approaches lead to a new theory of engineering?

It seems to be beyond much doubt that there are indeed better ways of teaching and learning engineering: that is, from a gender appropriate standpoint.

Beyond this, it is problematic whether significant numbers of women will establish viable long-term careers in engineering. Indeed low numbers seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy unless the profession across-the-board unites to overcome this issue.

Whether somewhere along the way this leads to a new theory about the practice of engineering itself is an open question.


[1] Julie Mills, Mary Ayre and Judith Gill
      Gender Inclusive Engineering Education
      Routledge, New York and UK, 2010
      ISBN 10: 0-415-80588-0

[2] Donna Riley
      Pedagogies of Liberation in an Engineering Thermodynamics Class
      Proceedings of the 2003 American Society for Engineering
      Education Annual Conference and Exposition
      June 22 - 25, Nashville, Tennessee, 2003

[3] Donna Riley, Alice L. Pawley, Jessica Tucker and George Catalano
      Feminisms in Engineering Education: Transformative Possibilities
      NWSA Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Summer), 2009

[4] Michael Foucault
      Truth and Power, Interviewers: Alessandro Fontana, Pasquale Pasquino
      Power/Knowledge, Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977,
      Editor Colin Gordon
      The Harvester Press, 1980, ISBN 0-85527-557-X, pp 109 - 133.

[5] Gerhart Sonnert and Gerald Holton
      Career Patterns of Women and Men in the Sciences
      American Scientist, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1996), pp. 63-71
      Stable URL:

[6] Bobbi J. Carothers and Harry T. Reis
      Men and Women Are From Earth: Examining the Latent Structure of Gender
      Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22 October 2012, pp 1 - 23.
      Advanced Online Publication: doi 1037/a0030437

[7] Chi-Ying Gheng, Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and Fiona Lee
      Connecting the Dots Within: Creative Performance and Identity Integration
      Psychological Science, Volume 19, Number 11, pp. 1177 - 1183.