It was International Women’s Day last week which caused me to reflect on parlous state of the engineering profession. Despite many initiatives and substantial expenditure of resources, the percentage of women in engineering in many Western countries has remained around 20% for most of my career. For instance, in the UK, women made up 14.5% of all engineers in 2021 according to the Women in Engineering Society and 21.8% of women work in the engineering sector; while in the USA women secured 22% of all Bachelor’s degrees in engineering in 2018 (wwwstemwomen.com). So, why have the many apparently well-supported initiatives made so little progress towards creating a gender-balanced profession? Perhaps, they are not as well-supported within the engineering profession as they appear to be; or they are the wrong solutions for the problem because we do not understand the problem. I suspect that both of these reasons for failure are relevant. The lack of progress would suggest that most men in engineering are not worried that their profession is unrepresentative of the society it claims to serve and if they are concerned then they do not understand the issues sufficiently well to be able see a viable solution. We can start to gain a better understanding by listening to women in science and engineering. This can be done in everyday conversations, by attending events such as those organised on International Women’s Day, or by reading about women’s experiences such as in ‘Invisible Women: exposing data bias in a world designed by men’ by Caroline Criado Perez or in ‘A Fly Girl’s Guide to University: being a woman of colour at Cambridge and other institutions of power and elitism’ by Lola Olufemi, Odelia Younge, Waithera Sebatindira and Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan.
My regular readers will have recognised the novel nature of a blog that seeks, in a unique way, to present promising engineering ideas in a favourable and robust manner. Actually, I hope my regular readers will recognise this opening sentence as completely uncharacteristic. It was a blatant effort on my part to include the five words, underlined, with positive meanings that are most used in the titles and abstracts of articles published in clinical research and the life sciences. A recent survey of more than 100,000 articles showed the prevalence of these words, with them being used significantly more in articles in which the first or last authors were male compared to those in which the first and last authors were female. In other words, female authors are significantly less likely to describe their research findings in these positive terms and this influences the subsequent citations of their work and probably their prospects for research funding and advancement. Sunday was International Women’s Day and, hence this is an appropriate week for everyone responsible for decisions about research to be conscious of this trend. They should also be aware that the use of these positive words has increased in clinical and life sciences research by around 150% in the fifteen years to 2017. In other words, the modesty of researchers has declined and they are more likely to describe their results as ‘novel’; however, I think it is unlikely that the results are any more novel than typical results published 20 years. Of course, like most researchers, I always think my last breakthrough is the most exciting yet but many of us have been letting that enthusiasm lead us to exaggerate its novelty and value.
Source: Lerchenmueller MJ, Sorensen O & Jena AB, Gender differences in how scientists present the importance of their research: observational study, BMJ, 367:16573, 2019.
The proportion of women graduating with engineering degrees in the UK and US has remained around a sixth for at least the last thirty years despite many campaigns to achieve gender equality. One of my colleagues, Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, writing in the New Statesmen asked whether it will take another world war to get more women into engineering. I think that the sort of seismic shift in attitude caused by such events will be required. Many in the engineering profession claim that problem-solving is a unifying skill, which is common to all branches of engineering, and yet we have been unable to solve the problem that our profession is one of the least gender diverse. Does this mean that we have not really been trying to solve the problem, or that we are not the problem-solvers we claim to be?