Women who study engineering are less likely to remain in the profession than men because they get given less challenging problems during team-based work projects, especially during internships, according to a study co-authored by MIT sociologists.
In those kind of group situations, the study found that gender dynamics seem to generate more opportunities for men to work on the most challenging problems, while women tend to be assigned routine tasks or simple managerial duties.
The researchers said the experience of such “negative group dynamics” during team-based work projects often makes women feel marginalised and makes the profession seem less appealing.
Susan Sibley, Professor of Humanities, Sociology and Anthropology at MIT and co-author of the research, said that in such group-based activities “it turns out gender makes a big difference”.
As a result of their experiences at these moments, women who have developed high expectations for their profession - expecting to make a positive social impact as engineers - can become disillusioned with their career prospects.
To conduct the study, the researchers asked more than 40 undergraduate engineering students to keep twice-monthly diaries. The students attended four institutions in Massachusetts: MIT, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This generated more than 3,000 individual diary entries that the scholars systematically examined.
The researchers said: “What emerged is a picture in which female engineering students are negatively affected at particular moments of their educational terms – especially when they engage in team-based activities outside the classroom, where, in a less structured environment, older gender roles re-emerge.”
For example, one student named Kimberly described an episode in a design class in which "two girls in a group had been working on the robot we were building in that class for hours, and the guys in their group came in and within minutes had sentenced them to doing menial tasks while the guys went and had all the fun in the machine shop. We heard the girls complaining about it".
Or, as the researchers said: "Informal interactions with peers and everyday sexism in teams and internships are particularly salient building blocks of [gender] segregation."
The researchers added: "For many women, their first encounter with collaboration is to be treated in gender stereotypical ways." And by contrast, as the researchers noted in the paper, "Almost without exception, we find that the men interpret the experience of internships and summer jobs as a positive experience."
The paper, titled Persistence is Cultural: Professional Socialization and the Reproduction of Sex Segregation, appears in the latest print issue of the journal Work and Occupations. For the full paper click here.
Wednesday 23 June marks National Women in Engineering Day (#NWED2016) - the International awareness campaign to raise the profile of women in engineering and focus attention on the career opportunities available in the industry. For more information click here.