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Women’s Unique Challenges in the Transitions to Engineering Work

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division Technical Session 2

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

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Paper Authors


Chris Gewirtz Virginia Tech

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Chris Gewirtz is PhD student in Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. His research interests start with how culture, history and identity influence assumptions made by engineers in their practice, how to change assumptions to form innovative and socially conscious engineers, and how to hold engineering enterprises to higher standards of justice.

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Francesca Giardine Smith College

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Giardine is a senior Engineering and Mathematics double major at Smith College. She is particularly interested in computational modeling and renewable energy, and would like to pursue graduate studies in these fields.

Outside of academics, she enjoys reading and hiking.

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Robin Ott Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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In 1995 Robin received a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech and has since gained 20 years industry experience. Early job experience included working as a design engineer for a Naval Sea Systems Command contractor where she designed a Countermeasure Washdown System for the MHC-51 Coastal Minehunter ships. She also spent time as an Application Engineer at Parametric Technology Corporation, the creators of 3D CAD software PRO-Engineer. In 1999 she joined Kollmorgen, a motion control company based in Radford, where she held multiple roles of increasing responsibility during her nine years there. While at Kollmorgen Robin worked with Shingijutsu Global Consulting experts from Japan and earned black belts in the DBS kaizen areas of Standard Work and 5S and traveled globally to qualify suppliers in Asia and Europe. Most recently Robin worked as Senior Director of Project Management for a small bio-tech company, Intrexon, located in the VT Corporate Research Center and had the opportunity to introduce manufacturing principles into a highly specialized DNA production facility. Since joining the faculty at her Alma Mater in 2015, Robin has been coordinating and teaching the Capstone Senior Design program in Mechanical Engineering while pursuing graduate work in Engineering Education.

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Anne Kary

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Anne Kary, originally from Claremont, CA, is a junior at Smith College majoring in Engineering and Mathematics. Her interests largely lie in Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Education. In her spare time, she dances and plays ice hockey for Smith.

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Significant research in the past few decades has documented the experiences and challenges that women in engineering face, not only in a professional setting but also as engineering students (Tonso, 2006; Faulkner, 2005; Cech, 2014). However, few of these studies have reported on the transition from capstone training to engineering practice. Capstone is meant to prepare engineering students for the workplace by simulating engineering work, but this is not the same as preparing women for the (presumably) gendered experiences of engineering work. This study aims to answer the question: What unique challenges do women face in their first year of engineering work?

We ask this question to make way for future questions: What should women be prepared for in transitioning to engineering work? How does capstone prepare or not prepare women for their experiences of their first year in engineering?

Participants for this study are drawn from a larger study of four universities across the United States. The total participant group used for this study included 47 engineering newcomers, 22 identified as “female”, and 25 identified as “male” on a screening questionnaire that included transgender, gender-nonconforming, and an option to skip the question. The data set included interviews with the participants conducted at three, six, and twelve months of work. Interviews were analyzed with multiple rounds of coding to determine which challenges articulated by participants were unique to women.

Results indicate that women face many of the same challenges as men, but also a set of unique challenges, which were sometimes overtly rooted in sexism. The results also point to the influence of different programs’ preparation for workplace challenges - participants graduating from the all women’s college of the study had unique language for describing their challenges, and also approached their challenges differently.

Cech, Erin a. “Engineers and Engineeresses? Self-Conceptions and the Development of Gendered Professional Identities.” Sociological Perspectives 58, no. 1 (2014): 56–77. doi:10.1177/0731121414556543.

Faulkner, Wendy. “‘Nuts and Bolts and People’: Gender-Troubled Engineering Identities.” Social Studies of Science 37, no. 3 (2007): 331–56. doi:10.1177/0306312706072175.

Tonso, Karen L. “Teams That Work: Campus Culture, Engineering Identity, and Social Interactions.” Journal of Engineering Education 95, no. 1 (2006): 25–37. doi:10.1002/j.2168-9830.2006.tb00875.x.

Gewirtz, C., & Giardine, F., & Ott, R., & Kary, A. (2020, June), Women’s Unique Challenges in the Transitions to Engineering Work Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35588

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