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Why Have Engineering Fields Been Slower To Change Than Others?

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Potpourri II

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.1400.1 - 13.1400.11

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Paper Authors

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Caroline Hayes University of Minnesota

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Why are Engineering Fields Slower to Change than Others? “Pioneers are the people lying face down with the arrows in their backs.” -- Anonymous.


Women continue to be underrepresented at all levels in engineering fields, even relative to other science, technology or math fields. This paper explores what, if anything is different about engineering fields that may be holding them back. It does so by examining and combining data from national data sets on gender distributions of students and faculty in a variety of science and engineering fields. The paper focuses on engineering at colleges and universities because of the role which these institutions have in inspiring both women and men to choose engineering as a field, and their potential to change the composition and size of the future workforce. Findings include that for fields dominated by men in the 1960s 1) those fields with the highest (or lowest) proportions of women students in the 60’s still have the highest (or lowest) proportions of women students today, and 2) the proportion of women students is highly correlated with the proportion of women faculty in a field. This may suggest that increasing the number of women faculty may be a strategy for more rapidly attracting women students into a field. Finally, the paper raises additional questions we need to be asking as a community to uncover barriers and to develop intervention strategies that can attract more talented engineers of both genders, and improve the climate for all.


Over the last 50 years, there have been great increases in the number of women in some traditionally male dominated professions such as law and medicine. However, women have not entered all such professions at the same rates. For example, medical schools in the United States graduated 45 percent1 women in 2004, while computer science schools graduated only 25 percent women Bachelors of Science and 21 percent women PhDs.2,13 Literature on women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields documents many factors that have made it difficult for women to gain acceptance in male dominated professions including a dearth of female role models,3,4 implicit gender biases,3,4,5,6 and reluctance (often unconscious) from people in positions of power to include women in their informal networks7 or act as their professional allies.8

However, since these factors apply to all historically male dominated disciplines, they do not adequately explain why fields such as law and medicine have changed more rapidly than engineering. Is there something inherently different about the nature of engineering work in engineering organizations that has made engineering less appealing to women? It is essential that we understand and overcome the barriers for women in engineering because we need to develop as much potential engineering talent as possible if we are to have a sufficient number of engineers available to continue supporting a high-tech economy11. This is not simply a matter of fairness; the quality of the engineering profession will fail to reach its full potential if it continues to make full use of only a fraction of the talent pool. White males comprise less than half of the US population. In order to be fully productive and competitive engineering fields must draw from a much larger cross section of potential talent.


Hayes, C. (2008, June), Why Have Engineering Fields Been Slower To Change Than Others? Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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