Engineering Ignorance: The Problem of Gender Equity in Engineering
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Engineering Ignorance
The Problem of Gender Equity in Engineering

Men know nothing about the oppression they inflict.1

Introduction

Feminist politics aims to dismantle women’s inequality by naming and challenging sexual oppression and gender disadvantage. In modern Western feminism, work is an important site for this politics. It is both means and ends. Feminists argue that work itself should be redefined so that work activities outside the labor market are recognized and demand that the conditions of work within the labor market be transformed to recognize diverse gender relations and practices. Feminists therefore argue that women’s unpaid work should be valued, that we should be aware of how certain tasks become gendered, that things valued as feminine should be re-evaluated, and that women have equal access to all forms of work so that unpaid work is distributed more equally.2 These gains are the means to achieving feminist ends. Feminism brought women’s work, which has been largely invisible, onto the stage and has effectively destabilized assumptions that women’s work is gender-neutral (paid) or unimportant (unpaid).3 Feminist campaigns for political change through women’s access to paid work on equal terms with men have challenged assumptions about men’s natural capacities, as much as they have women’s.4

Women in Western societies have made advances in paid work, but have we become more equal? Have sexual oppression and gender disadvantage been transformed or at least reduced? Certainly women have made some gains over the last three decades, such that they are now engaged in every industry and occupation, at all levels of skill, knowledge, and power. However, work [End Page 89] continues to be a problem for women; that is, compared to men, women do it for less pay and in poorer conditions with far fewer rewards.5 Further, women’s distribution across the labor market is uneven. They predominate in the flexible, low-paid fields, while men continue to maintain their hold on permanent, full-time, highly paid occupations in management and thus their hold on institutional power as well. The pathways to such high-level positions are discursively and materially complex and require the almost continuous negotiation of gendered politics.6 Thus, women’s entry into high status professions continues to be difficult, in spite of overcoming the obstacles to their access to higher education. Such has been the case in medicine and law, for example, where women comprise at least half of student enrollments and yet still do not have equivalent access to more senior positions in these occupations. But they do work in significant numbers that are sufficient to have some effect on workplace cultures and gender equity.7 In this context, engineering is a particularly interesting example. It is an occupation in high demand and one that is highly valued, and it has been subject to feminist campaigns for equity and diversity for at least two decades. Yet the gains have been slim. In Western countries, women continue to be underrepresented in the engineering profession, both at student and at professional levels.

Higher education enrollment statistics for engineering in Australian universities show that engineering, as compared to other broad areas of study, continues to have the lowest rate of female participation at 14.1 percent in 2005.8 In the United States, women made up 19.3 percent of total undergraduate engineering degree completions in 2005–06;9 in the United Kingdom, the total was 9.5 percent in 2005–06;10 and in Canada, 18.5 percent in 2004.11 The variation among these four countries is largely explained by different entry requirements. The UK and Australia demand that students have math, physics, and chemistry, whereas Canada and the US have slightly more flexible options. Overall, the proportion of women students is persistently, and relatively, low compared with equivalent professional fields. While women now choose undergraduate level courses such as veterinary science and law in slightly greater numbers than males, the Australian engineering student cohort is still 86 percent male, with the next least popular area for females being architecture and building, with...