People are often surprised when they find out I am an aerospace engineering graduate student. After four years in an undergraduate engineering program, I'm sometimes a bit surprised myself. Universities worry about the underrepresentation of women in engineering — a national issue that limits the size and quality of the technical workforce. But if engineering programs really want to improve their diversity, they need to stop pressuring women to conform to traditional engineering environments and instead accept responsibility for tackling the institutional challenges that discourage female students.
Cultural stereotypes labeling science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as "masculine" — while the liberal arts and social sciences are "feminine" — discourage participation from female students and hinder their self-confidence. Even highly competent girls assess their STEM abilities more harshly than their male counterparts. At the University of Maryland, only 20 percent of undergraduate engineering students are women. Young women who do go into engineering show an overwhelming preference for fields with clear social benefits: bioengineering (47.2 percent female in 2013), chemical (33.2 percent), and civil engineering (30.9 percent). In contrast, female representation is significantly lower in electrical (15.6 percent), mechanical (14.3 percent), aerospace (13.3 percent) and computer engineering (10.7 percent) — specialties more associated with machine shops and technology than service to others.
Women may also be deterred from these latter fields because they are less likely to enter college with the appropriate skill sets. Traditionally "masculine" toys and activities teach construction and manipulation skills while "feminine" toys do not. I felt unprepared and out-of-place in my introductory engineering courses — it seemed like I was the only person who didn't know how to solder, code or use power tools. I felt too intimidated to ask questions because I didn't want to draw attention to my lack of ability. My experience highlights "stereotype threat"; female students fear that their poor performance might confirm the stereotype that women are not qualified for engineering. Universities could do more reduce stereotype threat by preparing students for laboratory work rather than assuming prior skills.
Despite strong academic performances, bias discourages women from pursuing engineering careers. While explicit bias is decreasing, implicit bias continues. The most accomplished female engineer hears that others assume she received her awards and job offers in place of a more qualified male applicant in the name of diversity. She learns that she must perform better than men to earn the same recognition and respect (Half — 51.6 percent — of female engineering students at UMD are also members of the Honors College, compared to only a quarter — 27.5 percent — of male engineering students.). Even after graduating magna cum laude from the aerospace honors program with significant research and extracurricular involvement, I frequently hear that I was awarded a graduate fellowship primarily because of my gender, not my qualifications.
Institutional obstacles, such as poor classroom climate, under-representation, faculty issues and "weed-out" courses are the most significant detriments to female success in engineering. STEM courses commonly have low exam averages and involve grading on a curve. According to a report put out by the American Association of University Women, "low scores increase uncertainty in all students, but they have a more negative effect on students who already feel like they don't belong, as many women in STEM majors do." Female engineering students, accustomed to performing well, see low raw scores as evidence they are unqualified in a way male students do not. A boy may see himself as an engineer because of a love for engines or computers honed as a child, and persist despite less than stellar grades, whereas a few mediocre scores often push girls into a different major. This is compounded by the fact that girls are more likely to view academic challenges as insurmountable. Studies suggest that adults generally praise girls for intelligence while they praise boys for effort. Consequently, girls grow up believing their "smartness" is innate and finite, while boys learn challenges are overcome through effort.
Despite having an encouraging research adviser, other male faculty and peers have repeatedly dismissed my concerns about the traditional structure of engineering courses. They believe women just need to be more tough-minded because male students have handled the harsh grading policies and challenging engineering environments for years. And therein lies the fundamental problem: the unwillingness of engineering programs to confront the existence of institutional obstacles deterring the involvement of women in engineering. But until university representatives stop trying to "fix" women and instead really listen to and work with them to address the structural problems associated with male-dominated engineering programs, the gender gap will persist.
Sylvie DeLaHunt is a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.