Voices of Young Women in Engineering

May 1, 1996

Over the past decade, researchers have identified a wide array of factors that hinder young women from pursuing fruitful careers or further studies in engineering and related technical fields. These factors include the lack of meaningful hands-on experiences with science and technology, lack of parental support, limited notions about career options, and little guidance or institutional support for taking advanced pre-requisite courses in mathematics and physics (Maple & Stage, 1991; Mcilwee & Robinson, 1992; Sadker & Sadker, 1984; 1986; 1989; 1991; Stage, Kreinberg, Eccles, and Becker, 1987; Syron, 1987).

Although this research has been helpful in pointing out many of the obstacles young women may encounter in pursuing technical fields, there have been few studies that have paid attention to the voices of young women at the secondary school level who are at the point of exploring their options and seriously considering engineering as a career. This is partly due to the fact that there are few pre-engineering and technical programs offered at the secondary school level.

Based on ethnographic studies at a specialized science high school in New York, this paper will discuss the experiences of five 17-year-old female pre-engineering students as they struggled to gain their own voices in an innovative, hands-on mechanical engineering program. The program itself is considered to be exemplary and includes many of the things that research contends is necessary to attract and prepare girls for the field of engineering: collaborative work, hands-on technical experience, and methods of instruction that encourage students to explore technology in relationship to society. Despite these curricular innovations, observations and interviews with the girls have revealed that there are a number of cultural and psychological pressures that they contend with on a regular basis in the classroom - pressures that have convinced many to opt out of pursuing engineering further. Based on these findings, alternative methods of intervention for educating young women in science and engineering will be discussed.

The high school in which this study has taken place is in many ways atypical. Being a specialized science high school, all students are exposed to engineering coursework and other technology-related work in their freshman and sophomore years. At the end of the sophomore year, students must enroll in a 'major' that prepares them for college level work in science, engineering, liberal arts or the social sciences. Currently, the school offers 16 majors for students to choose from. Course coordinators select students for majors on the basis of grades in related freshman and sophomore courses, and on the basis of the students' preferences.

Despite the unusual introduction to engineering that all students receive before selecting a major, the number of young women who elect to take any of the four engineering majors available (mechanical, civil, aeronautics, and electrical engineering) has been consistently low. At the end of 1992, only 6% of the junior and senior year girls were enrolled in engineering majors. Forty-six percent were enrolled in liberal arts majors, 38% enrolled in other biology, math, and chemistry-related majors, and 10% enrolled in architecture. For boys, course-taking patterns were more evenly distributed among the different majors, with the highest percentage of boys (36%) in engineering majors and the lowest percentage in the liberal arts (18%) and architecture (12%) majors.

Aware of the under representation of girls in the engineering classes, the course coordinator for the mechanical engineering program adopted the policy of accepting any girl that applies to the program regardless of grades in prerequisite courses offered in freshman and sophomore years. Of all the programs offered, many consider the mechanical engineering program to be exemplary for both male and female students because it integrates mathematics and science with hands-on tinkering, group work and critical thinking, all of which is essential for practicing engineers. Students work cooperatively in teams to design, build, and construct mechanical devices by using Fisher-Technik (Lego-like) materials in their junior year and real materials for full-scale projects in their senior year. In addition, students conduct research projects which explore the relationship of technology to society.

Despite the program's innovative approaches and the coordinator's efforts to actively recruit girls, the number of girls in the mechanical program also remains low. The mechanical engineering program has been one of the more successful engineering programs in the school to attract girls last year, yet there were only 17 girls out of 101 students who were enrolled in the program during 1992-93 year.

In collaboration with teachers of the mechanical engineering program, my colleagues and I at the Center for Children and Technology had the opportunity to explore more deeply some of the issues that engineering raises for young women by documenting closely five girls who were enrolled in the program over the course of two years. This exploratory work was an outgrowth of a larger research project we were conducting on alternative assessment which provided methods for uncovering some of the girls' experiences in the program as well as their academic accomplishments.

The young women who were part of this study had a variety of reasons for entering the mechanical engineering program: several indicated that they enrolled because they performed well in their freshman year introductory engineering class, two were specifically interested in learning how to build things, and two had ended up in the mechanical engineering program because they could not get into their first program of choice. It should be noted that during the course of the junior year, nearly all the girls who were part of this study were performing at or above average in the mechanical engineering program. In fact, two of the girls were considered to be among the best students in their classes by the teacher. Despite their levels of achievement in the class and their initial curiosity about engineering in general, few are considering engineering as a career toward the end of the second year in the program. Out of the 9 girls who enrolled in the program in 1992, one has dropped out and only two are seriously considering studying engineering in college.*


Dorothy Bennett