By Amelia Lipcsei
Sophomore year, I signed up for AP Physics 1. It wasn’t a choice made on a whim; I knew the class would be difficult, but I was interested in the subject matter. However, when I went to choose my classes, I almost made the choice to drop it. For a good five minutes, my counselor attempted to deter me from taking the course. The phrases “it may be too difficult” and “are you absolutely sure you want to take this class” seemed to encompass the entirety of the spiel. Back then, I thought that maybe the class simply had a low AP Exam pass rate, or that maybe the teacher was overly harsh. Afterall, I was a straight A student that had already taken difficult subjects. Why would this subject be any different than my previous courses? Even with the discouragement, I decided to take AP Physics 1, and I loved it. The subject matter was interesting, the teacher was passionate, the Westmont pass rate was much higher than the global average, and the class pushed me to become a better student. I finished with an A in the class both semesters. Then, I tried to enroll in AP Physics 2. Once again, I heard the same spiel about the intensity of the class, but I resolved to take it.
There are currently only 4 women in AP Physics 2 at Westmont—a class that has around 20 people in total. I have absolutely no regrets about taking either of the courses. In fact, physics is what pushed me to want to pursue a career in engineering. I do wish, however, that there were more women enrolled in engineering related courses. Unfortunately, looking back, it seems clear that the scenario that I, and probably millions of other women, experienced had little to do with our qualifications, and more to do with the fact that we weren’t male. With only 14% of engineers being women, it appears obvious that women are deterred from entering the field, not only by media, peers and advisors, but also by the lack of role models in the industry. Without changes made in both media and societal standards, women will continue to struggle to gain ground in an immensely male predominated field. Engineering needs to be treated as a job designed for people of all genders—not just men.
From a young age, women face subtle encouragement by societal norms to stay away from engineering. Toys and media often portray women as neat and clean, with the obvious stereotype of ‘women belong in the kitchen’ being a forefront for the narrative. Likewise, this same media tends to portray engineering as a job that requires “getting your hands dirty and fixing things,” according to award-winning electrical engineer, Kerrine Bryan. Thus, these two narratives clash. If women should be tidy and quiet, yet engineering requires using your hands and getting ‘dirty,’ then it seems obvious that women, by media portrayal, should refrain from participating in that field of career. Lucy Gills, an engineer and stem ambassador, adds that “There’s so much embedded in our culture saying engineering isn’t for girls, and people still think of engineers as the men who fix your washing machine, not the people at the forefront of designing creative solutions to the world’s problems.” Engineering is so much more than just the manual aspect of building things; it is a career that can positively impact the lives and futures of millions of people around the world by solving prevalent issues in society. However, due to media depiction, which emphasizes the ‘boring’ and ‘manly’ aspects of the job to young girls, many women find themselves uninterested in pursuing an engineering career later in life.
In fact, a recent study has shown that overtime these messages dissuade women from studying subjects related to engineering. As reported by Donolly, conductor of a study about women in engineering, “Among girls aged 11-14, almost half (46.4%) would consider a career in engineering, compared with 70.3% of boys.” Unfortunately, by the time individuals reach the ages of 16-18 years old, the statistic drops to only 25.4% girls. Part of this immense drop has to do with sexism and media portrayal, the other part has to do with the lack of role models in the field. Since only 14% of women make up the engineering workforce, it is difficult for young girls to find someone to look up to and follow. Studies have shown that “females who have women in STEM role models show more of an interest in pursuing a STEM career compared to those who do not,” and that these role models can greatly impact the education level that women achieve (Womenintech). The ability to watch individuals similar to them succeed in predominantly male dominated fields allows people to feel more empowered and understood. Regrettably, with the continuous lack of women in these fields, and without any changes made to the system, women will continually struggle to gain a larger percentage in the engineering workforce. Changes need to be made.
Even after deciding to major in engineering, women still face sexism during college, internships, and jobs. Many reported that during summer programs they attended, “men were assigned interesting problem-solving tasks where they could develop their analytic and technical skills, while women were often assigned jobs sorting papers, copying, collecting equipment, writing notes, and coordinating—tasks they felt did not value or cultivate their skills” (Silbey). This, coupled with sexual harassment, unchallenging oppurtunities, and isolation from other women facing similar issues has caused 40% of women with engineering degrees to quit the profession. Ironically, girls tend to outperform boys in engineering related classes. In fact, Donnelly states that “In all Stem A-levels, except chemistry, more girls get A-C grades than boys, and this pattern continues at degree level,” and that likewise, “almost 80% of female engineering students will get a first or an upper second-class degree, compared with 74.6% of male students.” Clearly, women are just as qualified as men, and they deserve to be taken just as seriously in engineering professions.
Without a change in the blatant sexism of both media and societal standards, women will continue to be dissuaded from pursuing a career in one of the most interesting career pathways. Engineering is, and has always been, a job designed for both men and women alike, and it needs to be treated as such—or else women, and their brilliant ideas, will remain isolated from a career that could positively impact the lives of millions and change the framework of society itself. Women belong in engineering. Changes need to be made.