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Many Factors Contribute to Low Share of Women in Engineering and Computing

Report: “Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing”

Organization: American Association of University Women

Authors: Christianne Corbett, senior researcher, and Catherine Hill, vice president for research, both of the association

Summary: Gender bias, workplace exclusion, and a lack of support structures are some of the factors contributing to the lack of women working in engineering and computing, according to a new report by the American Association of University Women.

The report uses outside studies and data to highlight women’s low participation in those fields, possible reasons for it, and suggestions to improve those conditions. The research included data about both higher education and workplace environments.

Some notable findings include:

  • Women made up 26 percent of the computing work force in 2013, a figure that is about the same as it was in 1960. In engineering, women’s representation grew to 12 percent from less than 1 percent over the same period.
  • The percentage of women who receive bachelor’s degrees in engineering increased slightly, to 19 percent in 2013, up from from 1 percent in 1970. The proportion of women earning bachelor’s degrees in computing, however, is now half of what it was 30 years ago.
  • Women in engineering and computing often report feeling isolated and unsupported.
  • “Stereotype threat” — or the fear of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s own group — has been shown to result in decreased interest and sense of belonging in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
  • Women strongly value helping others, and perceptions of engineering and computing jobs as lacking those social opportunities may turn women away.

The report also recommends several changes that employers and educators can make to encourage female participation in the fields. Some of them include:

  • Introducing the idea of engineering and computing at an early age, and exposing girls and boys to positive female role models in both fields.
  • Encouraging employers to maintain fair and consistent management practices, be aware of gender bias, and promote diversity.
  • Making engineering and computing more socially relevant by emphasizing its societal benefits, in college curricula and the workplace.
  • Providing opportunities for female engineering and computing students to tinker and build confidence in their design and programming capabilities.

Bottom Line: To improve female participation in engineering and computing, changes in the workplace and college environments must be made. Those include promoting the fields’ social impact, providing women with a supportive network, and eliminating gender bias.

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