Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Where are the Women in Engineering, IT and Tech?

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By Atala,

More and more these days, the boundaries are being broken down with respect to what professions men and women want to do. Time was when there were very specific career options open to women, such as teaching and nursing; this is not really surprising, considering that it was only until the late nineteenth century that many universities began to start opening their doors to women. These days, things are much different, so that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( over a third of doctors, about a third of lawyers and around three-fifths of accountants in America are women.

However, it seems that things are very different the engineering and computer science fields, where there are less than a fifth of women. It's true that these professions have a history of being dominated by men; but given that this is also true for other professions that women were restricted from taking up, I do wonder why this might be the case; as far as I know, there is no overt resistance to hiring women in these fields, I have certainly not observed any such resistance in my experience working in IT.

One reason might be the image of the profession being very "boring" and "nerdy". It's true that many engineering professions are more abstract so that it's not always obvious what is going on; I like to joke that you'll never have a TV series centered around the exciting life of an engineer. I'm sure the world is ready for a high-octane, suspense filled drama about how a deadly software bug was tracked down and killed. Or maybe not :)

But if this were a valid reason, and women only wanted airy-fairy, exciting jobs, then it means that we would only see women in non science jobs, and as we know, this is plainly not the case with the number of nerdy and sexy female doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc.

But there's the view that women cannot handle 'hard' science, so they run away from engineering. But again, this is disproven by the large number of girls who do handle science well in secondary school - it's just that once leaving school, they choose not to use that knowledge of science in pursuing a career in engineering.

One thought that comes to my mind is that there may be an unconscious bias in the heads of those who are looking to hire for engineering positions, as well as women who are looking for employment positions. Perhaps the perception has persisted for so long that "women don't do engineering" that those looking to employ don't push hard enough to look for women, and women don't push hard enough to get their foot in the door in such places. The trouble with unconscious biases, however, is that they're unconscious, so it's hard to know if there's even a problem, and this is where self-examination on the part of employer and candidate is important.

But is it a problem? Well, if you think that it's better to have an organization where there are many different kinds of people who bring their own unique experience, it is. But what if women genuinely don't *like* engineering? Should they be compelled to do it? The trouble is, sometimes you don't really know if you like something until you've tried it, but you might not try it if you have a skewed perception of it.

So one thing that can help is changing perceptions. One thing that would help would be if the women who were already in engineering were more visible so that they could serve as positive role models to girls who were thinking about becoming engineers. Also, the media could air more stories and dramas of women in engineering, since what people see, hear and read also affects their perceptions of reality.


  1. i loved This,
    i´m a Civil Eng. student in Germany. my family back in Nigeria were a lil bit skeptikal abt it at first, but now are very supportive. i love doing what i do and it gives me the most joy.

    1. I'm glad you've been encouraged to follow your dream, Anon.

  2. First of all, like the Anon said, a lot of families are not supportive of their females going into engineering. Also, most girls in sciences have little awareness about engineering. Most of what they are aware of is Medicine and basic sciences.
    I noticed that more men in EIT are more concerned about the shortage of women in EIT than women who are in EIT are.

    1. The comment about unsupportive families is interesting; I assume that this is more common in Nigeria. The thing is, while there are some parents that point blank don't want their daughters going into engineering, there are those who are unsupportive not because they don't believe that their daughters could be good engineers, but because they believe that it will be harder for them to do well, since the profession is dominated by men.

      But it's a chicken and egg situation; if more women don't venture into a field, people believe that it will be difficult for them because there aren't many women in the field, and because of this, women are discouraged from venturing into the field.

      I found the comment about men being more concerned about the shortage of women in tech interesting. Do you think that since women in tech aren't so concerned, that maybe it's not an issue?


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