Throughout the first half of the 20th century and into the second, women studying or working in engineering were popularly perceived as oddities at best, outcasts at worst, defying traditional gender norms. Female engineers created systems of social, psychological, and financial mutual support, through such strategies, conditions for female engineers changed noticeably over just a few decades, although many challenges remain. Engineering education in the United States has had a gendered history, one that until relatively recently prevented women from finding a place in the predominantly male technical world.
For decades, Americans treated the professional study of technology as men’s territory. At places where engineering’s macho culture had become most ingrained, talk of women engineers seemed ridiculous (Sax, 2005). For years it’s been assumed that young women avoid careers in mathematics-based fields, like engineering and physics, because they lack confidence in their math skills. But a new study finds that it’s not a lack of confidence in their math skills that drives girls from those fields; it’s a desire to work in people-oriented professions.
It has been found that young women who are strong in math tend to seek careers in the biological sciences. They value working with and for people, they don’t perceive engineering as a profession that meets that need. The environment at many tech schools is hostile toward helping students achieve a degree and is more geared toward weeding out those who are struggling. It’s difficult to come up with alternative engineering solutions if everybody in the room looks alike.
That’s the initial reason why automakers and suppliers are busy trying to identify and hire minority and women engineers. The business case is that if more than half of an automaker’s customers are either female and/or people of color, which they are, then those groups need to be represented in every sector of the company. One of the most important areas for automakers to get a range of views is in product development. With that diversity mission in mind, DaimlerChrysler Corp. , Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp.
, all have mounted aggressive programs to identify and hire minority and women engineers. At GM the story is the same. To attract minority and women engineers, the automaker proclaims that innovation comes from the people who see the world in a different way than everyone else. One women and minorities enter into the automotive engineering ranks, they need to be challenged and encouraged to develop their careers or they’ll be gone (Sax, 2005). It’s not just the Big Three that are working to create a more diverse engineering workforce.
Suppliers and engineering support organizations such as the Society of Automotive Engineers are trying to draw more women and minorities into the profession. Faced with chronically small percentages of minorities and women in virtually every segment of engineering, companies are going to great lengths to attract them to the world of automotive engineering. Harvard President Lawrence Summers ignited a firestorm recently when he suggested more men than women are scientists because of differences between males and females in “intrinsic aptitude.
” Many scientists-both men and women-expressed outrage at Summer’s remarks and blamed any lag in math among girls mainly on discrimination and socialization (Dean, 2006). They point out that girls have closed the gap in average scores on most standardized math tests in elementary and high school. Today women constitute almost half of college math majors and more than half of biology majors. But Summer’s supporters say he courageously raised a legitimate question for scientific inquiry.
Indeed, in recent years some researchers have been pursuing a scientific explanation for the discrepancies in math and science aptitude and achievement among boys and girls and have found differences, including biological ones. Summer’s suggestion that women are biologically inferior in math infuriated many female scientists. Some asserted that the other two factors he mentioned were far more important in keeping women out of science: sex discrimination and the way girls are taught to view math as male territory.
Some differences are well established. Girls do better on tests of content learned in class and score much higher on reading and writing tests than boys. Boys score higher on standardized tests with math and science problems not directly tied to their school curriculum. On tests of spatial awareness, boys do better on tests that involve navigation through space. Girls are better at remembering objects and landmarks. Studies show differences in brain structure and hormonal levels that appear to influence spatial reasoning.
But the implications of these differences for real world math and science achievement remain unclear. “There is evidence that male and female brains differ anatomically is subtle ways, but no one knows how these anatomical differences relate to cognitive performance,” (Dean, 2006). At the heart of the current controversy is a societal implication-that the failure of an institution like Harvard to tenure even one woman mathematician can be blamed on the lack of top-flight women mathematicians, which in turn can be blamed on too-few top female minds in math.
As evidence of intrinsic aptitude differences, Summers pointed out that more boys than girls receive top scores on standardized math tests. Today girls receive better grades than boys in math and science through high school, have closed the gap on average scores on most standardized math tests and take more advantage high school classes than boys in almost every category except physics and high-level calculus. In college they constitute nearly half the math majors and more than half the biology majors.
Indeed, today a growing number of researchers contend boys are the ones who are shortchanged-judging by the larger proportion of boys in special-education classes and the declining proportion attending college. Women now make up 56 percent of students enrolled in college; by 2012, the Department of Education projects they will account for about 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees (2002). The fact that more boys than girls make top scores on standardized math tests is often invoked as evidence that boys possess an innate superiority in high-level math.
Experts on both sides of the divide agree gender differences are real, even if they disagree bout how much is socially learned and how much biologically based. Girls do better on writing and on algebra problems, probably because algebraic equations are similar to sentences, and girls excel in language processing. Boys are better at mathematical word problems; girls are better at mathematical calculation. Boys and girls also differ on spatial skills, and experts are divided over how innate or important these differences are.
A recent study of the Graduate Record Exam, for instance, found men did better on math problems where a spatially based solution was an advantage (Gallagher, & Kaufman, 2005). Sex hormones have been shown in several studies to affect the ability to envision an object rotating in space. Females who take male hormones to prepare for a sex-change operation improve on tests of 3-D rotation and get worse on tests of verbal fluency, at which women typically excel.
During their menstrual cycle, women do better on 3-D rotation when levels of the female hormone estrogen are low; they do better on verbal fluency when estrogen levels are high. If science be taught directly with a hands-on, inquiry-based approach, it sustains girl’s interest in science. Girls like to work in cooperative teams, a lot of science was taught in a competitive mode. Women scientists also earn less than men. But it’s only fair that women who work fewer hours face the economic consequences of lower salaries and less status. References: Dean, Cornelia. (2006).
“Dismissing ‘Sexist Opinions’ About Women’s Place in Science”. A Conversation with Ben A. Barres. The New York Times. July 18, 2006, pp. 1-5. Gallagher, Ann M. , & Kaufman, James M. (2005). “Gender Differences in Mathematics: An Integrative Psychological Approach. Cambridge University Press. National Center for Education Statistics, “Projections of Education Statistics To 2012”. (2002). Available on-line: http://nces. ed. gov/pubs2002/proj. 2012/ch_2. asp.. Sax, Leonard. (2005). Too Few Women- “Figure It Out”. Los Angeles Times. Jan. 23, 2005.
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