Why are there so few women in engineering?

         In 10 years, Aliéonor Lougerstay sees herself working in Silicon Valley as an engineer, inventing computers that people will be able to control with their thoughts. Maria Fernanda Gonzalez wants to be an aerospace engineer, designing and improving airplane parts or working in robotics designing mechanisms for the differently-abled. But for now, these two young women are in their first year of engineering at Concordia University.

maria planes

      Like all engineering students, they have very little free time. They go to class, where the students are 80 to 90 per cent male, and work with their study buddies before going out for a beer. Aliéonor is in computer engineering—one of the specializations with the smallest percentage of women.

In computer engineering, 19 per cent of publications written by university students are produced by women. Maria is in aerospace engineering were 14 per-cent of these publications have a female authorship.

According to Maria and Aliéonor, there are two types of engineering: industrial and commercial engineering, and the more math and science oriented engineering. The first has a much more important female representation than the latter.

Although there aren’t many women in engineering programs, Aliéonor said she was supported. “When someone wants to go in engineering, especially a woman, everyone is like: do it! Do it! Perfect! Oh wow, please come to us!”

She had the same experience when applying to colleges in France, where she has lived until now. “Every damn school I visited was like “come with us! Women have more jobs than guys, get more easily employed!” she said. However, she laughs when asked if there were many women in her classes. Maria says that when young women go into engineering, they expect to be surrounded by men. This could be a factor of dissuasion for female students applying to the program.

According to Aliéonor, it has to do with the reputation of the engineering culture. People in this field are perceived as “nerds,” and the general stereotype seems to be that they don’t care about their appearance. The image people have is the one from “The Big Bang Theory” she explained. This description seems to fit more easily a masculine person than a feminine one because mostly men are represented in the show as geeky and into math and sciences. That’s why not many girls are attracted to this field.

Yet Aliéonor is very happy about her time in this program and fits in well with her mostly male classmates. “I have a lot of big brothers” she said, explaining that this was the case for most of the other girls she knows in the program. It’s a different mentality, another way of thinking. There are stereotypes that just shouldn’t be stereotypes, says Maria. Most girls in engineering have the mentality that goes with it and are open minded.

For the most part, the women in the engineering department are treated like everyone else. Aliéonor says that she feels like a princess in the program, and that she stands out as the “fragile little girl.” Maria added she felt a strict professor was more patient with her during one of her labs last semester.

maria working

In this difficult field, which has more and more jobs opportunities, women are highly underrepresented. Yet a study named “On the Compliance of Women Engineers with a Gendered Scientific System” has shown that when male and female engineers work together, they are more productive. This study made by Gita Chiasi and her team at Concordia University prove that women in the engineering field, are cited 3 per-cent less frequently than men but are published in more renowned magazines and scientific reviews according to web of Science’s “Impact Factor”. Maria isn’t too surprised to hear this, and says that it must stem from the leadership and social abilities that are most commonly found in women. She says that during group projects she directs the group, and that her classmates follow well to her instructions and input.

There are less women in engineering because it’s a very “hands on field and many girls don’t like that,” says Maria, especially in mechanics, where engineers dissemble pieces to see how they work. She also believes it derives from the socialization in the family—she says boys are more generally given toy cars and airplanes, and girls, dolls. This family sociology impacts their careers and university paths. The obvious reaction to this is should be to try and attract women to engineering. However, as Aliéonor says, “We can’t force anyone to join engineering if isn’t their thing.” Yet every year more and more women join engineering programs as 23 per-cent of engineering graduates in 2013 which is the highest in it’s ever been according to Statistic Canada.

Women are largely underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics because female teachers in these fields are underrepresented as well. According to a study called “Demographic Characteristics of High School Math and Science Teachers and Girls’ Success in STEM,” young white women are more likely to graduate with a college degree in STEM-related majors if their teachers in high school for those subjects where women.

As female graduates and professors from the engineering programs at Concordia University have said in the Concordia magazine from fall 2015, there is a definite future for women in this field. Gina Cody, the first woman who achieved a PhD in building engineering at Concordia, told the Concordia magazine that gender is slowly becoming less of an issue within engineering. She is now the president of an Engineering Consulting firm in Toronto. Similarly, Catherine Mulligan, a professor in the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering, says that “as far as industry goes, I believe women are given equal opportunity and it’s up to them what to make of it.”

Google, where Aliéonor and students studying computer engineering dream of working, is has 17 per cent of female in their technology staff. This is a high percentage for the Silicon Valley, the Mecca of technology and engineering advances, but very little compared to the number of female engineers ready to work in this type of company, according to the article “Google, Silicon Valley must do more to hire female engineers” written by Vivek Wadhwa for the Washington Post on May 29, 2014. On the other hand, Maria says that companies like Bombardier, a Canadian multinational aerospace and Transportation Company, want girls to be part of their teams, and that is encouraging for her.

What everyone is saying is that the field is constantly evolving. In the past thirty years, many more women have been entering engineering and applied sciences at a university level. For now, Maria says that there are about 30 girls out of 100 people in her classes. She also knows that, as she specializes in aerospace or mechatronics, these numbers will dramatically drop.

       These two women, in their first year at Concordia University, surrounded by men in their classes. Yet organisations like “IEEE Women in Engineering” and “Engineers Canada” are doing all they can to help and inspire girls to pursue their interests in the engineering fields. Even here at Concordia University, an organisation called “Women in Engineering” (WIE) was created to give support in all ways to female students in engineering in hopes to provide a positive atmosphere for their studies and professional life.

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