Flying Through the Glass Ceiling

There continues to be a considerable gender gap across engineering fields. Discriminatory workplace dynamics persist in discouraging women from pursuing an engineering-related degree and career. Can women overcome these obstacles or will the engineering world continue to dissuade them?

Whenever you find yourself around other engineering students or working in a project group, I urge you to take a step back and observe the gender diversity. It’s quite fair to say that there are, in general, more men than women. Now have a thought as to why that is. Are women simply ill-suited for engineering? If your immediate answer isn’t “NO”, then I highly suggest you re-evaluate your internal moral compass. Nevertheless, to what do we owe this gender imbalance?

The lack of a Y chromosome seems to have brought women a great deal of difficulty and misfortune in the engineering field. On December 9th 1989, a gunman entered a classrom at the Ecole Polytechnique de Montréal, separated the men from the women, and proceeded to kill fourteen female students at point-blank range. The perpetrator claimed that women have no place in the field of engineering, and should not attempt to equate themselves with men by pursuing a scientific career. The Polytechnique Massacre spread like wildfire across the globe, scattering fear amongst women who were considering an engineering-oriented profession.

The nightmarish event of 1989 shone a spotlight on the paramount need to eradicate gender barriers in the engineering field. Three years later in 1992, a groundbreaking report by the Canadian Committee on Women in Engineering, commissioned in the wake of the tragedy, called for concerted efforts to attract more women and shatter the myth that girls don’t have the “right stuff” to become engineers. This was internationally perceived as a chance for women to empower themselves by diving into these male-infested waters. Although this resulted in an increase in female enrolment in engineering schools across America and Europe, the trend reversed itself in 2001 and has remained unchanged. While the memory of the horrid massacre may have faded, the gender bias still persists.

In 2008, throughout Canada, the US, and Europe, there were roughly four to five times as many men as there were women applying to an undergraduate engineering-related degree. What is even more disconcerting is that close to 40% of women with an engineering degree either leave the profession, or never enter the field after completion of their studies. The American Psychological Association found that most women are put off due to workplace discrimination and a lack of job satisfaction. Women in Engineering (WIE) is the largest international professional organization dedicated to promoting female engineers and scientists. They also aim to pressure engineering companies to improve their workplace dynamics between men and women. It is estimated that companies are 15% more likely to thrive if they are gender diverse, and enabling women to meet their full potential in their work environment could add as much as $28 trillion to annual GDP in 2025.

Despite the difficulty that women have, those who have the tenacity to tolerate the copious amounts of testosterone, make significant and distinguished contributions. Emily Roebling (1803-1903) was the first woman field engineer and technical leader of the Brooklyn Bridge. Hedy Lamarre (1913-2000) invented a remote-control communication system for the US military during World War II, upon which all modern-day communication structures are built. Amelia Earhart (1897- 1937) was an aviation pioneer and the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. The list goes on and on… Those claiming that women have not had a prominent impact on science and engineering are simply pedaling fiction. In fact, on average, women perform just as well if not better than men across all engineering fields. Our female counterparts are also renowned for their patience and meticulousness; these are extremely valuable qualities in the ever-evolving world of engineering.

So what needs to change? It’s clear as day that the work environment needs to be transformed for the better since almost half of the women with a scientific degree either discontinue or never enter their field due to bad workplace dynamics. Though that doesn’t explain the persisting low enrolment in technical studies. Educational institutions need to acknowledge their responsibility in removing gender barriers and positively influencing attitudes of young engineers, especially at a high school and university levels.

There are many programs targeted at female high school students to encourage them to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers. In March 2015, First Lady Michelle Obama launched “Let Girls Learn”, an initiative that aims to help girls have a proper education. It also aspires to remove gender barriers in fields dominated by men. The National Girls Collaborative Project seeks to effectively reach and serve underrepresented girls in STEM. It also gives access to high-quality resources for high school counselors who can encourage female students towards following a scientific career, all whilst making them aware of the current hurdles. These types of initiatives, aimed at inspiring girls towards a technical profession, are paramount in balancing the gender distribution in such fields.

To add more fuel to the fire, it might prove interesting to look at the consequences that arise from a lack of women in science. A drought of women in STEM means that the perspectives of half the world’s population would be absent. This has already led to many issues, notably in the area of health care. It’s currently widely acknowledged that countless women with heart diseases have been misdiagnosed in emergency rooms and sent home, possibly to die from heart attacks. This was because it was incorrectly assumed that women exhibit the same symptoms as men for cardiovascular diseases. The male-dominated cardiology field deemed sex an unimportant variable in the medical research of heart diseases. The National Institute of Health corrected this procedural bias in May 2014 by announcing that the medical researchers it funds will have to always consider sex as a variable in the experiment design and analysis.

The engineering world is anything but a smooth ride for women. It remains a competitive male-dominated industry. Hopefully the gender distribution will start evening-out in the coming decade as more women decide to fly through the glass ceiling and put men to the test.

– N. Ruitenbeek