February 9 2007 - Research led by Professor Barbara Bagilhole, of Loughborough University and
funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has found that
although the number of women studying engineering has increased, many use it as a route to other careers.
The study found that recent government initiatives designed to encourage women into what has been regarded as a physically
demanding and dirty profession have to some extent been thwarted by higher education teaching and learning methods. A rise in the number of
women engineering students has not been reflected in the number taking up the profession.
The study investigated students' views before, during and after an industrial placement, and looked at women's coping
strategies in a largely male-dominated environment. Respondents came from pre and post 1992 universities. The former were mostly post A-level
undergraduates. The latter tended to be mature or part-time students with different experiences and priorities. Researchers found that women
students had identified an engineering degree as providing a good basis for a variety of career paths but the most useful skills on transferring
to the workplace were practical and generic ones.
The study found that both male and female students were critical of course content, assessment methods, and emphasis on theory, and wanted a more practical and relevant curriculum. The transition from education to the practicalities, routine and culture of the workplace was difficult for some students. Researchers suggest that industrial placements have a role in easing this process, and can help women engineering students make career choices.
Professor Bagilhole said:
"Women adopt a variety of strategies for coping both as an industrial placement student and in a male-dominated environment. These include acting like one of the boys, accepting gender challenges, building a reputation and downplaying any disadvantages in favour of advantages.
"Overwhelmingly, women found that, both in the engineering classroom and workplace, their gender was, unwittingly, likely to ensure that they received more help than their male counterparts. On the negative side, this indicates that women are widely viewed in engineering as less capable than their male counterparts."
Women students perceived themselves to be more employable than their male counterparts, and felt that companies were trying to enhance their image by recruiting more females.
Professor Bagilhole commented:
"A drive to recruit more women into the industry is commendable, but this has had the effect of making them wonder whether they have been employed for their capabilities or their gender. Alternatively, this has also led women to believe - possibly falsely - that engineering workplaces would be equitable for women, posing the question of whether getting in' is the same as 'getting on' in these industries."
The study also found that women engineering students valued their novelty status and shared traditionally stereotypical views held by women outside the profession.
Professor Bagilhole added:
"These attitudes may be a result of their assimilation into the industry culture, and they do little to further women's causes in engineering."