Towards a Gender Expansive Engineering – Part One, What’s the Gender Binary?

The following is a blog post for the Graduate Society of Women Engineers (GradSWE) written by myself and Rachel Tenney. You can see it on the GradsWE blog here..

Gender in engineering is an important and much-discussed topic. This might be why you are reading this blog. Organizations such as Society of Women Engineers (SWE) exist specifically due to the underrepresentation and marginalization of women in engineering. However, gender is much more broad than just a simple two-category dichotomy of men and women. We would like to be sure that in our efforts to increase gender inclusion and gender diversity in engineering that we are paying attention to those different from us – women with complicated relationships to gender and nonbinary (third-gender category or otherwise not men/women identified) engineers. This is why SWE is welcoming not only to those who identify as a woman, but to everyone on the gender spectrum – including male allies. This is why we find this to be an important topic to our inclusivity in GradSWE.

The trouble with centering a gender binary

“Hi ladies!” “Hey girls.” “What a wonderful woman.” “An accomplished woman.” “She’s not only a mom, she’s an engineer.” “As women, how do we do engineering?” “Women in engineering bring unique skills.” “We need to hire more women.”

Did you know that many individuals in the LGBTQ+ community identify as a third gender option, or even construct their identity outside of the gender system all together? Nonbinary is defined by the National Center for Transgender Equality  in an article titled Understanding Non-Binary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive:

Most people – including most transgender people – are either male or female. But some people don’t neatly fit into the categories of “man” or “woman,” or “male” or “female.” For example, some people have a gender that blends elements of being a man or a woman, or a gender that is different than either male or female. Some people don’t identify with any gender. Some people’s gender changes over time.

People whose gender is not male or female use many different terms to describe themselves, with non-binary being one of the most common. Other terms include genderqueeragenderbigender, and more. None of these terms mean exactly the same thing – but all speak to an experience of gender that is not simply male or female.

Developing an inclusive culture around gender in engineering means we may need to move beyond just advocating for women. As women, we understand what it is like to be underrepresented and undervalued. Nonbinary individuals in engineering perhaps experience a sharper brunt of gender discrimination. As women, we are aware of sexism in society that often permeates its way into the workplace and classroom. Anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans sentiments can also exist alongside sexism – and a specific form of sexism, known as cis-hetero-sexism, combines all three together into what can become a chilly climate for transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming engineers.

Studies show that engineering may be the chilliest climate out of the STEM disciplines for LGBTQ+ engineers, and LGBTQ+ engineering professionals report greater discrimination than other occupations in our federal government.1,2 In particular, we wish to draw attention to “gender binary discourse” that can exist within higher education and engineering.3 Put simply, gender binary discourse is discussion and activism that only recognizes two simple gender options. “Men and Women” or “Ladies and Gentlemen.” Think of the last time you filled out gender in a survey – were there two options? Three? Four? When presented with just two options certain individuals such as nonbinary or gender nonconforming people feel left out and excluded. In our gender activism perhaps it is time to adopt approaches that welcome other gender minorities such as nonbinary or genderfluid engineers alongside other LGBTQ+ or gender nonconforming women.

Want to learn more about what we can do as a community to open up our culture for a broader gender spectrum? Look forward to Part 2 for ideas on how to incorporate these concepts into your organization or daily life.

If you are interested in contributing in any way to GradSWE’s Diversity & Inclusion team (such as assisting in blog posts, brainstorming ideas, sharing ways we can become more inclusive, or developing outreach initiatives) please contact Diversity & Inclusion Liason Andrea Haverkamp at We look forward to working with you!

  1. Z. Nicolazzo, Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2017.
  2. J. Yoder, A. Mattheis, “Queer in STEM: Workplace Experiences Reported in a National Survey of LGBTQA Individuals in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Careers. Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 63, no. 1, 2016.
  3. E. Cech, LGBT Professionals’ Workplace Experiences in STEM-related Federal Agencies. 122ndASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, 2015
  4. M. Wittig, “One Is Not Born a Woman.” Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives. Ed. Carole R. McCann and Seung-Kyung Kim. New York: Routledge. 246-250, 2013.

Author: Andrea Haverkamp

Andrea Haverkamp holds a PhD in environmental engineering with a minor in queer studies. Her dissertation research explored the support systems and community resiliency of transgender and gender nonconforming undergraduate students in undergraduate engineering education. She is currently a labor organizer in Washington state.

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