Using socially meaningful work to attract female engineers: Part of the solution
I agree with the author of this recent NYTimes post. Women do seem to be more attracted to socially meaningful work than males. I don’t think that’s the complete solution, though. We have evidence that women are more likely to pursue studies in computer science if encouraged (see Joanne Cohoon’s work) and if they feel a sense of “belonging” with the department (see our work in Georgia). If we want more women in engineering, we have to think about recruitment (as this article does) and retention (as other work does).
Why are there so few female engineers? Many reasons have been offered: workplace sexism, a lack of female role models, stereotypes regarding women’s innate technical incompetency, the difficulties of combining tech careers with motherhood. Proposed fixes include mentor programs, student support groups and targeted recruitment efforts. Initiatives have begun at universities and corporations, including Intel’s recent $300 million diversity commitment.
But maybe one solution is much simpler, and already obvious. An experience here at the University of California, Berkeley, where I teach, suggests that if the content of the work itself is made more societally meaningful, women will enroll in droves. That applies not only to computer engineering but also to more traditional, equally male-dominated fields like mechanical and chemical engineering.