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More women students choose engineering - but not as a career

While more women today are studying engineering, many use it as a launch base for a variety of other careers, according to new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Government initiatives encourage women into what has been regarded as a tough, heavy and dirty profession, but they are often turned off by the teaching and learning methods used in higher education, says the study led by Professor Barbara Bagilhole, of Loughborough University.

As a result, rising numbers of women engineering students have failed to translate into an equivalent increase in those taking up the profession for a living. The study, which involved finding out students’ views before, during and after an industrial placement, throws light on the experiences of women in a largely male-dominated environment, and the strategies they adopt for coping.

Some were at a post-1992 university, and more likely to be mature or part-time students. They had different experiences and priorities to the mostly post A-level undergraduates at the other establishment involved, a pre-1992 university. The researchers found that women students had identified engineering degrees as a good basis for a variety of career paths. However, they found that the most useful skills on transferring to the workplace were practical and generic ones.

Indeed, students of both sexes were critical of content, assessment methods, and emphasis on theory in their college courses, and wanted instead a more practical and relevant curriculum. The study says that the transition from education to work can be difficult for students in terms of adjusting to the practicalities and routines of work, as well as the workplace culture. Industrial placements can ease this process, and help women engineering students make choices about their careers.

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 perceived themselves to be more employable as a result of their gender, and felt that companies were trying to recruit more females in order to improve their image.

Professor Bagilhole said: “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.” Women students were found to value their status as a ‘novelty’ in engineering, and held traditionally stereotypical views of women outside the profession.

Professor Bagilhole commented: “These attitudes may be a result of their assimilation into the industry culture, and they do little to further women’s causes in engineering.”

Annika Howard | alfa
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