The trouble of reinforcing gender difference for women in engineering

Raising up role models without addressing misogynist gender-in-engineering culture leaves the root causes of gender discrimination unchecked and off of the hook. Phipps believes that recruitment and role models alone will not challenge gender stereotypes and may actually increase the perceptions of gender based difference.

What is wrong with the mantra and identity of “women engineers” as opposed to “engineers”? Is there trouble in saying boldly and loudly – our gender matters? Yes, and no. It’s complicated. We should talk about it and look at the research!

According to a growing body of research, when we hear repeated messages of our gender and that it makes us different, it can further recreate the social phenomena that stereotypes ideas of innate gender differences. These stereotypes of difference often deem women as less competent at math and science. Writer and gender researcher Cordelia Fine writes in her book Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society that being primed and reminded of your gender can solidify gender stereotypes.1 In one highlighted study, women underperformed in rotational geometry tests when primed first of their category as women and that the test was designed for traditionally male subjects, but performed similar to men when this was absent. Similarly, men who were reminded of their gender identity and were told that ‘emotional awareness’ and ‘communication’ were feminine tended to underperform on communication related tasks when compared to a control group of men who were tested with gender unmentioned. When gender is not mentioned, these differences evaporate. When gender is mentioned, our performances change according to stereotypes. Why is this? She explains that “when the concept of gender is primed, people tend to perceive themselves in more stereotypical ways.1 Could reminding ourselves continuously that we are women (from Venus, compared to men from Mars) be counterproductive with respect to promoting gender equity in engineering? “It is the notion of gender and gender-related norms, rather than gender per se, that lead to differences between women and men.” In other words, we are not different in terms of our mental or cognative abilities based on gender. It is instead the constant reminder and discussion that women are different which creates differences. In engineering, this may be solidifying differences between men and women in terms of performance and belonging instead of bringing true equity.

Alison Phipps is a sociological scholar who wrote an excellent paper that discusses this very concept. In Re-inscribing gender binaries: Deconstructing the dominant discourse around women’s equality in science, engineering, and technology she asserts that “women in science, engineering, and technology discourse actually reinforces traditional and essentialist notions of gender, many of which are implicated in the symbolic incompatibility of women and SET.”2 Wait – that seems counterintuitive. Our efforts towards gender inclusion may be making things less equitable? She issues the following statement as a call for us to reconsider the path we have traditionally taken:

“While purporting to liberate girls and women from gender stereotypes and promoting their equality in SET, initiatives which mobilize ‘Women in SET’ discourse may actually be engaged in processes of regulation which reinforce those stereotypes and construct girls/women and SET in such a way as to make it difficult for girls and women to understand themselves as being capable SET students and future professionals.”

The constant messaging that women are inherently different and in need of specialized gender help to succeed in engineering (such as summer camps, role models, and pink microscopes or lab toys for children) can serve to suggest an implied lower status for women, according to Alison Phipps. This is because she and other researchers believe there is a subtle suggestion that perhaps we are inferior in our science abilities or simply are unaware that engineering exists, which she defines as ‘female lack.’ This means that discussions about reaching out to women and increasing the participation of women stems from Victorian-era notions of gender difference rooted in biological inferiority. She raises the question of asking how often gender activism has seeked to liberate men from their stereotypes about women or describe men as “over-represented.” As Cordelia Fine discussed in her book we mentioned earlier, these notions of women as ‘lacking’ are mythical and outdated. She goes to great lengths to discuss how every human has unique skills and attributes that are not linked to bodies or gender differences. The great attention on stereotypes of women’s difference and the importance of their gender in engineering can produce harmful impacts on women’s belonging.

The discomfort some of us feel when constantly being discussed as ‘different’ due to being women is called ‘spotlighting’ – a highlighting of gender difference in engineering which makes some women feel targeted and hyper-visible even when we are discussed in a positive context. Research shows that spotlighting such as women in engineering organizations such as SWE, local departmental clubs, scholarships, gendered mentoring opportunities, and special lounges and programs can reinforce the idea that women do not belong in STEM. For example, special mentoring, scholarship, and research grant programs for women have the negative effect of suggesting that women are not capable without extra support.3 In research by Lisa McLoughlin, she finds that programs that center on women’s difference teaches some women they need assistance due to their gender alone. This can “induce self-doubt” and “provide ammunition for male students.” For many of us these programs become integral to our success and resiliency. I know that I have found strength with other women in engineering. But some women find these to be condescending or patronizing. Alison Phipps suggests to us that “role model” initiatives do not take into account the “various structural, cultural, epistemological, and symbolic barriers to women’s participation.” What does all these words mean? To put simply, providing role models to women in engineering is just one small component of the work that needs to be done to bring about gender equity. We need to address the bigger picture. Raising up role models without addressing misogynist gender-in-engineering culture leaves the root causes of gender discrimination unchecked and off of the hook. Phipps believes that recruitment and role models alone will not challenge gender stereotypes and may actually increase the perceptions of gender based difference. What can we do to address these barriers in addition to our current work? One suggestion made by Lisa McLaughlin is to move towards gender expansive language, programs that unite multiple identities, and create programs that eliminate inappropriate gender-biased behavior by men upon their targets. Lisa McLoughlin suggests that we extend women in engineering programs into “conduct in engineering” programs to emphasize professional behavior and include other biases. This may liberate all of us – men, women, nonbinary individuals, and others – from harmful stereotypes of gender difference.

  1. Fine, C. (2017). Testosterone Rex: myths of sex, science, and society. New York: WW. Norton & Company. 18-28.
  2. Phipps, A. (2007). Re-inscribing gender binaries: Deconstructing the dominant discourse around women’s equality in science, engineering, and technology The Sociological Review 55(4), 768-787.
  3. McLoughlin, L. (2005). Spotlighting: Emergent Gender Bias in Undergraduate Engineering Education. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(4), 373-381.

Author: Andrea Haverkamp

Andrea Haverkamp is a doctoral candidate in environmental engineering with a minor in queer studies. Her dissertation research explores the support systems and community resiliency of transgender and gender nonconforming undergraduate students in undergraduate engineering education.

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