Cultural issues, hiring bias may impede women in engineering

It's no secret that women are underrepresented in engineering. One quick data point—although the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society was founded and held its first symposium in 1952, and although the International Microwave Symposium has been an annual event since 1957, next week's event in Tampa will mark the first time a woman will present a keynote address at the plenary session. (That will be Dr. Vida Ilderem, Intel Labs vice president and director of Integrated Computing Research—read more here.)

In fact, a 2011 study by the American Society for Engineering Education found that females accounted for only 18.4% of bachelors' degrees in engineering. (The figures were 22.6% and 21.8%, respectively, for masters' and doctoral degrees.)

Writing at WBUR, Fred Thys describes cultural issues and an unfortunate feedback loop that discourages more women from studying engineering. He quotes Kelly Kennedy, a recent bachelor's degree recipient from the UMass Amherst College of engineering, as saying, “A lot of guys will become interested in cars. 'You should become an engineer and then you can design the cars,' but I think as girls, we don’t get that as much.”

Olin College of Engineering is one school looking to attract more women to engineering, Thys writes. Olin's president, Rick Miller, contends that the way colleges teach engineering can turn women, and some men, away from the profession. Engineering, he said, should be viewed as a performing art. You wouldn't give a music student three years of theory and then hand her an instrument in her senior year.

Then there's the feedback loop. Thys quotes Shelly Peyton, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at UMass Amherst, as saying, “Girls get a little frustrated when there’s only 10 girls in that class of 70. And I think that leads into this confidence issue, too. 'Wow! I’m kind of alone here.'”

Nevertheless, Thys writes, Olin has demonstrated that it can attract women to engineering. He quotes Yevgeniya Zastavker, an associate professor of physics at Olin, as saying, “One of the ways that we are experimenting with is so-called project-based learning. It allows students to be autonomous learners. We ask them to develop their own goals and move toward those goals.”

Unfortunately, getting women to study engineering in college is only part of the battle. Kathy Pretz in The Institute reports that hiring managers in technology companies choose men twice as often as women.

The study “How Stereotypes Impair Women's Careers in Science,” written by Ernesto Reuben, assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School, and recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals the underlying biases of hiring managers, and also demonstrates the cost of discrimination.

“Studies that seek to answer why there are more men than women in STEM fields typically focus on women's interests and choices,” said Professor Reuben, in a press release. “This may be important, but our experiments show that another culprit of this phenomenon is that hiring managers possess an extraordinary level of gender bias when making decisions and filling positions, often times choosing the less qualified male over a superiorly qualified female.”

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