The mitigated role of women in engineering: an unjust affair or a self-inflicted problem?
Are we inherently unjust to women, or does this reality constitute a broader misunderstanding?
In the face of continued efforts and affirmative action programs to promote engineering careers to young women, it remains one of the most male-dominated academic disciplines. How has this come to be? Are we inherently unjust to women, or does this reality constitute a broader misunderstanding? Deciphering the social dynamics of women in engineering is an issue of increased salience more than ever before. A moral dilemma is at hand; is society unjustly depriving half of its own members from an equal vantage? Or have women passively lead from behind in their struggle for empowerment? The reasons for such a perplex quandary lies within several key arguments: namely — stereotypes and incorrect beliefs, lack of authentic career choice narratives and the self-mitigating role of women. Arguably the absence of women in engineering is due to a laissez-faire and self-deprecatory approach to work, whereby they willingly succumb to unwarranted male dominance. It is imperative to table these arguments in an attempt to reach a judgment on why exactly the status quo has has been sustained. Only then can a proposal be tendered in order to enhance the status of women in engineering through the creation of a new ethics based on ethics-of-care as an alternative model that can combine masculine and feminine qualities in order to reform the dynamics of power.
The role of stereotypes often deals a harsh blow to the assimilation of women into engineering and is one of the most prevailing issues against their presence in this field. Too often have we hypothesized that engineering is a field that is better off inundated with men. In fact, as it appears many students themselves fall prey to such rhetoric and outdated beliefs. To further aggravate this conundrum, women themselves also hold contradictory views on their own emancipation, with some going as far as claiming men to be more able than women in this context. This alongside the queen bee syndrome is a clear example of the self-deprecatory measures’ women impose upon themselves. This implies that women are in fact leading from behind and allowing men to dominate, while failing to encompass their own abilities. Yet critics may argue that it’s not all to do with women's’ attitude to work but also to do with their natural physiological role. For those who anticipate it, motherhood is perhaps a large burden, that when prioritized can seriously jeopardize one’s career prospects. Regardless, motherhood alone is not enough to explain such a disproportionate under representation of women in engineering.
Furthermore, there remain many incorrect beliefs and labels attributed to women that serve to their disadvantage. There is often significant disdain related to any feminist action or even activism. The notion of feminism and the stigma related to it can be rooted in our history. Women have often been excluded from the definition of a moral hero and any display of heroism in most schools of thought. In fact, qualities of heroism are portrayed as being masculine and individualistic. Throughout history and classical literature, women have been resented and feminism suppressed, thereby inciting an absence of women in many professions that exhibit traits of leadership.
Meanwhile, wrong career choice narratives are equally tantamount to bad advice, which itself is another error in tackling the absence of women in engineering. As it turns out, women are subconsciously encouraged from a young age to seek careers that are in greater harmony with the traditional expectations from them. Consequently, gender diversity programs and affirmative action for women, will not bear fruit as the number of women venturing out into the field of engineering is small to begin with anyway. In addition, many prospective female engineering students suffer from misinformation or misunderstanding due to the lack of expert opinion. This means that women lack the necessary advising in order to make an empirical decision and is perhaps where the gendered identity of engineering prevails from. This lack of expert knowledge can work in the opposite way too, in the sense that women may be forced into the field against their own will, resulting in them abruptly dropping out of college. Thus, pre-college advising, and better career choice narratives should be enacted, for women to develop gender resistant identities.
Moreover, women often contradict their own cause by entrenching themselves with apologetic and mitigating beliefs. In a way they self-inflict themselves with this problem from its inception. The behavior of women in all-male teams shows that from an early age, girls label themselves with derogatory terms and often appear apologetic. Even though their dedication can be beyond that of their male counterparts, they still lack the confidence and self-esteem to support their opinions and will belittle their own contribution while succumbing to male will. Women essentially give a free rein to their male teammates, and thereby incite male dominance and even resentment. It’s not unheard of boys using stereotypical puns due to the lack of any perceived female resistance. At the end of the day women need to be the change they want to see. Once we have passed a certain threshold for the attendance of women in engineering, then the monopoly of a masculine-centered culture has no choice but to accept a new ethics of mutual compromise and gender equality.
Perhaps a revival of activism is in order and necessary for any reform to take place in power relations. While men have an ethics of objectivity, women exhibit an ethics of care, attentiveness and responsiveness. Consequently, one can strike an intriguing comparison between these natural feminine traits and the Code of Ethics of NSPE. In this code, it is stipulated that one must, “work for the advancement of the safety, health, and well-being of their community”. This is in empathy with the ethics of care that is naturally seen in women. Therefore, is it not reasonable to invest in a greater role for women in engineering, given their relatively greater level of compassion and selflessness?
There are however those who argue that there is no inherent need for equal representation of men and women in engineering. There is in fact, a mutual under representation of men and woman in various fields. Therefore, this problem or critics may even call it a lack-of-problem, is not crude discrimination but rather a natural selection based on male and female specific qualities. Perhaps some would even argue that it is of greater utility to inundate certain fields with one or the other gender, than to achieve parity. However, we would have to be quite ignorant to do so, as we have not yet witnessed a tangible representation of women in engineering to have any real data to justify their under representation. Thus, the claim that the absence of women in engineering can be compared and explained by the absence of men in other fields, is in fact a weak argument. A paradigm shift may usher in a new era in engineering which can be more inclusive of women, in addition to being more embracing to concepts such as whistle blowing and transparency.
In the final analysis, the moral issue of the absence of women in engineering is a real and pressing issue. From stereotypes to the mitigating role of women themselves, it is evident that there is a degree of complexity to the situation, that combined with other factors, results in the weak status quo of women in engineering. Arguably, the greatest obstacle to women in engineering is due to their own lack of assertion and self-esteem. We can largely absolve this dilemma by prompting women to take a more proactive role themselves. In addition, we must press for the creation of an ethics based on ethics of care inclusive of both feminine and masculine qualities as an alternative to the male-dominated model. Lest we forget, women have involuntarily but sacrificially assumed the responsibility of motherhood, perhaps the greatest form engineering of them all, therefore it is only fair to embrace a greater role for women in engineering.