Wednesday, 25 March 2015

What Aren't The Problems of Teaching Engineering - And Why Are These The Issues We Are Addressing? #2: "The Lack of Women"

We engineers tend not to fix things which ain't broke, and if our fix doesn't work, we consider the possibility that we may have misunderstood the problem. We also tend to fix the biggest problem first. If only more engineers were involved in education. We might get a few problems solved, and waste less time on non-problems like the supposed shortage of women in engineering.

A great deal of effort goes into figuring out why women don't study STEM subjects and/or figuring out how to get them to do so. I am not however sure that the problem addressed by these efforts actually exists, especially in the field of engineering education. As the graphic shows if there is any imbalance in engineering, it is pretty trivial compared with a reverse problem in other professions.

The broad brush of the STEM classification obscures rather than assists analysis, as discussed previously. Two of the three subjects in which women are most proportionally overrepresented (courses related to veterinary and human medicine, and education) are often classed as STEM subjects.

During the time that these efforts have been made to persuade more girls to study STEM subjects at school, the gender divide has actually worsened in the most gender segregated courses like veterinary and computer science. We might speculate that getting more girls to do STEM A levels has just upped the number of applicants for STEM courses which fit with traditional gender roles.

Then there are all of the things which are not apparently problems: the over-representation of women throughout HE is not a problem. (The only groups proportionally underrepresented in UK HE are "White" and "Afro-carribean" working class males). The under-representation of men on the courses which women dominate is apparently not a problem (though a few others have noticed this). So why is it felt that the shortage of women on engineering courses is a problem?

It doesn't appear to be a real problem either for engineering, or for the women who want to study engineering as far as I am aware. Having encountered many female engineers in both education and practice, we haven't noticed them bringing as a class anything special to the table. They are not noticeably better or worse than men at the day to day business of engineering. Engineering does not seem to be missing out by not being half female, and there is (as discussed previously) an oversupply of both those wanting to study engineering, and engineering graduates.

In educationalist circles all kinds of benefits which might in theory accrue from a greater number of women studying and practising engineering are discussed, but they are not apparent in practise. Of course education is as disproportionately female as engineering is male-dominated, so the consensus opinion of educationalists is not gender bias-free.

Why do less women than men study and practice engineering? "stereotypes within the education system, norms governing gender roles in the household that constrain a woman’s choice of occupation", or to put it another way, they don't want to, generally speaking.

So women are not studying these subjects because they do not want to. Isn't the right number of women studying engineering as many as are capable of doing so, and want to? Who are educationalists to tell women what to want?

There is no evidence to suggest that that women are more innovative or otherwise better engineers than men, though there is an argument that more diverse teams are more innovative. Diversity is however even more slippery as a concept than "STEM". The missing diversity in HE appears to be a social class. If we are going to start carrying out social engineering, that is arguably where we should start.

But if we do want more women in engineering for ideological reasons, we need to promote Engineering to them, not "STEM". Promoting STEM to girls, and getting them to do more STEM A-levels appears to have simply further imbalanced the gender ratios in the subjects they do want to study.

Or why not follow Olin's lead, and based on the understanding that engineering is not applied science and maths, take in students without STEM A-levels. This would widen the pool of female candidates by allowing them in with the A-levels they do want to study.

The problem with engineering education is however not a lack of women. It is a lack of engineers, and a consequent lack of understanding in educational circles of what engineering is.

If this mistaken understanding of what engineering is about has an unwanted side-effect of excluding women who would like to be engineers, that should be one more small nail in "STEM"'s coffin. Such a situation would be inequitable, and in many countries, illegal.

We are not however aware that any inability of suitably qualified and motivated women to get on engineering courses, or to practice as engineers has actually been proven. If it is true, why has no-one been prosecuted in those countries where sex discrimination is illegal?

The arguments about a supposed lack of women on engineering courses seems to be based squarely on an unexamined axiom that the ratio should be at least 50:50 (or arguably more, as women outnumber men in the population, and outnumber them still more in HE) Why?