Hard Sciences - Why is it Male Dominated and What Can we do About it?

Updated: May 8, 2018

When studying Mechanical Engineering at university I’d say less than 10% of my course were female. This surprised me at first as I’d always been in evenly mixed classes throughout school and college.

A 2017 survey by the Women into Science & Engineering indicated that 11% of the engineering workforce is female although this is a positive change from 9% in 2015 shown by in a survey by the Institute of Engineering & Technology. Although these statistics show improvement, it is fair to say that engineering is still a male dominated industry. But why? And is this still the case?

Source: UK Government

Socialisation has meant that traditionally girls have been steered towards more ‘feminine’ subjects such as textiles, literature and sociology, whilst boys have been encouraged to take an interest in areas more ‘masculine’, such as maths, physics and chemistry. Gender specific products like Lego and dolls played with by children at a young age lead to stereotypes and expected behaviours. This is arguably one of the root causes behind why there are less females in science and engineering fields. Lise Eliot PhD (Chicago Medical School) told the Observer that “all the mounting evidence indicates these ideas about hard-wired differences between male and female brains are wrong. Yes, there are basic behavioural differences between the sexes, but we should note that these differences increase with age because our children's intellectual biases are being exaggerated and intensified by our gendered culture. Children don't inherit intellectual differences. They learn them. They are a result of what we expect a boy or a girl to be.” This means that boys and girls being geared towards different subjects is not natural but inherent in society.

In older generations women have traditionally not pursued higher education and grown up to look after their families and homes whilst their husbands have worked. This is gradually changing. In the past companies have treated employees differently depending on their gender, often due to the fact that women can become pregnant and have to take maternity leave which the employer must pay for. In some cases men have been paid more than women for doing the same job. Government enforced measures such as the equality act prevent employers discriminating against women because they may become or are pregnant. There is evidence to suggest such discrimination still exists today but hopefully it will become history.

In recent years affirmative action or ‘positive discrimination’ has seen women being encouraged to pursue scientific studies and careers. Government measures have involved promoting science and engineering in schools helping to break stereotypes.

In 2015 the Twitter hashtag #Ilooklikeanengineer aimed to eliminate ideas about how women in STEM typically industries look and Isis Anchalee’s blog described her experiences as a woman working in engineering went viral. She described how men had thrown dollar bills at her in a professional office and said ‘the industry’s culture fosters an unconscious lack of sensitivity towards those who do not fit a certain mould.’ This shows many engineering workplaces still need to change drastically in order to encourage more women in the workforce.

Organisations such as Women in STEM and the Women in Engineering Society actively promote women getting involved in Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics (STEM) through providing support and information at events and online. There are exclusive events for women and often awards recognising accomplishments at both university and industry level. Although this can be seen as leveling the playing field for women who under-represented in science and engineering fields, others may argue this can be giving some an unfair advantage and awards should be judged on merit alone.

Source: The Economist

Engineering and hard sciences should not be thought of as ‘masculine’ subjects and we need to change these preconceptions to encourage more women to pursue them. Are you a woman studying or working in engineering/science? What are your thoughts on this issue? Comment below or get in touch!

Luke T Seal Engineering