Although the topic of gender equality in engineering (and in STEM overall) is still common, and there is undoubtedly greater awareness of it, the problem is still far from being solved. Recently, there was an infographic published on the difficulties women face in scientific faculties, with a particular focus on engineering. There are several components that contribute to the gender gap in the field.
One such factor is the “stereotype threat”, as defined by Steele & Aronson in 1995. This occurs when one is afraid of confirming negative stereotypes about a particular social group (in this case that “girls are not meant to work in science”). This can have an impact on a student’s performance when taking an important test, for example.
Various American studies have shown how the environment plays a heavy role on pupils’ test results, preventing them from reaching their full potential when skin color or gender is emphasized. This negative feedback loop is a vicious circle: when girls score lower on STEM tests, it can further discourage them, reinforcing the idea that the stereotype is true.
This might have its effect on their future as well. In the United States, for example, only 20% of engineering students are women. And this female under-representation is a global phenomenon. This suggests that by the time they reach their college applications, many women have lost interest in becoming an engineer, or think that the major is too difficult.
Confidence is a crucial factor for women when making decisions. A Hewlett Packard report quoted in several articles, including the Harvard Business Review, showed that while men apply for jobs when meeting 60% of the requirements, women have to meet 100% to feel confident enough to apply. If we assume the same applies for college applications, we can see how the stereotype threat can play a big role.
There have been initiatives to change the current situation. For those girls interested in learning more on the subject, there are countless articles and publications introducing female role models in STEM, one being “STEM Gems”, a book listing 44 women shining in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Another initiative worthy of mention is “Engineering is Elementary”, an organization that developed an engineering curriculum suitable for grades 1-5 with the hope of making kids familiar and more interested in engineering at a young age.
Nonetheless, the road ahead is long, and awareness of the issue is only the beginning. A problem this embedded in culture takes time to resolve as we need to change the most stubborn thing of all – our culture’s mindset. The mindset of the employers, young women and society in general. We can all contribute on a daily basis: let’s talk openly about the situation and encourage women and men to break the norm and lose the stereotypes still present.