Gender and Racial Bias in the Engineering Workforce

02 December 2016

The Society of Women Engineers recently conducted a survey of more than 3,000 professionals with at least two years’ experience as engineers or engineering technicians. Some say that the bias unearthed is minimal—others say it is rampant. So the question becomes: what exists and has it changed over the years?

In a recent blog by Alyssa McKenna at the University of Minnesota Women’s Center, the author finds that the number of women in STEM fields is “depressing.” McKenna indicates that, “According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2016, 28.3% of graduate students studying materials science in 2013 were female. In chemical engineering, that percentage is 31.2%. The percentage of engineers working in industry who are women is 14.9%.

Is there a correlation between the number of women entering the field and the realities of life once they get there? The Society of Women Engineers conducted a survey in 1993 that looked at gender, age, location, experience levels and so forth. However it did little to unearth what it was really like for women engineers at the time—and how they experienced bias in the workplace. Fast-forward to a recent survey and we find out more. The study, Climate Control: Gender and Racial Bias in Engineering?, looks at four bias patterns. The survey, of course, offered much in the way of statistics similar to the 1993 survey, but it is the comments that accompany the statistical responses that shed light on the bias that exists.

The four bias patterns include:

Prove it again Women have to work harder to be considered competent. While competence in men is assumed, women tend to need to prove competence—not just once, but repeatedly. A common complaint is that men are judged on their potential, and women are judged on what they have already accomplished. In addition, the mistakes that a woman makes are remembered over time, while a man’s mistakes are soon behind him. Women indicate that they must be superstars to attain high evaluations. Excellent work is often evaluated at a lower level than that of a peer that is male. This type of bias is even more prevalent for black women than white women in the engineering fields.

Tightrope Women are either seen as too feminine to be competent or too masculine to be likeable. How does it play out? Women feel pressured to play traditionally feminine roles and receive backlash when they exhibit such masculine behavior as being decisive or speaking their thoughts and opinions directly. Unfortunately the bias is not just received from their male counterparts, but also from their female peers. When women are assertive, competitive or aggressive, both men and women push back. Black and Latina women in this category are often called “angry.” Women feel that they often have to frame themselves as being incapable of performing their jobs without being “helped” by their superiors.

Maternal Wall As women, we have grown up being told we can have it all. However, when we have dared to have children and a profession, commitment versus competence is questioned. This occurs across all races and ethnic groups. Women report that it was expected that they would lose their drive after they began to have children, and that their careers are more in the “hobby” category—as compared to a male's career—once they have children.

Tug of War Women tend not to reach down and help those that enter the field, according to this bias. Women who have been around and have endured discrimination often distance themselves from other women, fueling conflict in the workplace. This does seem to be changing, however, and women are beginning to support each other.

Survey comments

A look at some of the comments provided in the latest survey make these biases even more clear. For example:

  • A woman who raised her voice during a meeting was reprimanded for being emotional, while men who got into a verbal argument in the same meeting were not called on the exchange.
  • Women of all races and ethnic groups are more likely to be expected to do “office housework,” such as planning parties, taking notes and cleaning up.
  • Women of all races and ethnic groups claim that they receive less desirable assignments and are unable to access formal and informal network opportunities like their male counterparts do.
  • When women make concessions to their children and take any time off, they are seen as slacking, even when the time is made up.

How women adjust

Women report that they approach their work lives in a much different way than their male counterparts. They tend to not discuss their personal lives so that they are judged solely on their work. They report social isolation, especially those who are women of color. They also tend to hide their anger and frustration at being thought of as lazy or inferior just by virtue of being a woman.

Will the future improve?

In a 2010 research report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, the message is that while men and women should both freely be able to select and flourish in careers that are outside of the stereotypical gender roles, other elements are also operating.

According to the report, “Yet until the internal, mental constraints that link group identity with preference are removed, the patterns for self-imposed segregation may not change.” Even with people who refute gender and science stereotypes, their unconscious beliefs or implicit biases may be more powerful—because they are not aware of them.

So, what does this do? There is and will be gender bias. Is it improving? Yes. But we may hurry it along if we examine our own beliefs. While this may be an oversimplification, as women, maybe we need to stop cleaning up the workplace. Maybe we need to reach to create better project opportunities for ourselves, rather than wait for those that exist to be doled out to us after those of our male counterparts. And, just maybe, once we view ourselves as holding a position of strength—as we bring traits to the workplace that men do not—the industry just might begin to catch up faster.

I’m very curious as to how you—men and women—view this topic. Please take a moment to comment. Let’s get a discussion going. What do you see and experience? What are your frustrations? Let’s talk.

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