The Wrong Path to Gender Diversity
Rebranding engineering with ‘feminine’ stereotypes is not the answer.
Opinion by Emily Blosser
A common explanation for the continuing underrepresentation of women in engineering is that they hold a stereotypical view of the field as masculine and therefore avoid it. We often hear that women reject engineering because they are more interested in people-centered or helping professions and cannot see how engineering will allow them to do this. Or that women fear (rightly or wrongly) that being an engineer creates a conflict with their desire to appear feminine and attractive.
In response, some campaigns to encourage women to pursue engineering run the risk of combating one stereotype with another. In a study published in 2012, sociologists Jill Bystydzienski and Adriane Brown found that engineering outreach is presented to young women in stereotypically gendered ways, which emphasize how it can be aligned with feminine-labeled traits such as helping people, being nurturing, and being appearance-oriented.
Consider the Nerd Girls organization, with its “brains are beautiful, geek is chic” slogan, pink-themed website, and photos of glamorous young women wearing glasses. The apparent aim is to provide role models and highlight STEM’s compatibility with femininity, flaunting interests in fashion, dating, and beauty while proclaiming Nerd Girls’ passion for math, science and technology. Danica McKellar, the actress, math education advocate, and bestselling author, seeks to break the “math nerd” stereotype with titillating book titles Hot X: Algebra Exposed and Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape. Debbie Sterling’s engineering toy company, Goldieblox, is built around the idea that girls need a special toy to enjoy engineering, one that emphasizes reading and storytelling because girls do not really like building. Even the National Academy of Engineering website EngineerGirl seeks to spark young girls’ interest by spotlighting engineering tasks that are more socially relevant than technical.
This approach has considerable downsides. For one thing, characterizations about “women” are often far too monolithic and thus inaccurate. Social science continues to demonstrate that there is as much variation among women and men as between them. As sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway argues, when we focus on emphasizing and exaggerating gender differences—as these campaigns do—people then apply these ideas to women and men uniformly in a biased fashion. The result is that we assess women’s and men’s skills, preferences, and performances differently, even when there is no actual difference. Equally important is that such campaigns can influence how individuals make choices about their own competencies and what kind of engineers they want to be. Women may gravitate to certain engineering fields because they perceive them as gender conforming. All of this perpetuates inequality, such as job segregation by gender and gender wage gaps, even within the engineering profession.
There is no doubt that engineering has an image problem that must be addressed if it hopes to draw in women. We certainly need a cultural shift in how young people perceive engineers and what is possible in the profession. However, engineers should take a nuanced approach and keep stereotypes at bay when crafting initiatives to recruit women. This means we should not presume that women will necessarily excel and enjoy engineering tasks that are deemed less technical and more social. Additionally, we should promote a diverse array of female role models, and not just those who are highly feminine. This signals to women that there is a place for everyone across engineering fields. We must recognize that many women ultimately do choose engineering because they enjoy the problem-solving challenges it offers and that not all women are interested in wearing lipstick in the lab—or elsewhere, for that matter. Prospective students have diverse personalities and interests that cannot be reduced to their biological anatomy. Using stereotypical clichés about women to sell engineering may cause more harm than good.
Emily Blosser is a Ph.D. student in sociology at Louisiana State University.