Feminist Theory in Three Engineering Education Journals: 1995-2008

Article excerpt


Women remain underrepresented in engineering despite decades of effort. Feminist theory may explain why some well-intentioned efforts actually reinforce the very conditions they seek to change.


Our purpose is to understand and advance the use of feminist theory in engineering education research towards the goals of increasing gender diversity and equity in engineering. Specifically, we seek to address the following questions: How has feminist theory been engaged within engineering education scholarship? And what opportunities exist for further engagement?


We analyzed articles from Journal of Engineering Education (JEE), European Journal of Engineering (EJEE), and International Journal of Engineering Education (IJEE) that had women or gender as a central part of their studies. Tides, keywords, and abstracts for every article in the journals were reviewed for the years 1995-2008. The 88 articles directly addressing gender or women in engineering were analyzed to determine their level of engagement with feminist theory.


Feminist theory is not widely engaged or systematically developed in this scholarship. Most work rests upon implicitly liberal and standpoint feminist theories, but a mino?ty of articles point to intersectional, interactional, and masculinity studies approaches. We identified several ways in which deeper engagement with a wider range of feminist theories can benefit engineering education scholarship.


Feminist theory is underutilized within engineering education scholarship. Further engagement with, and systematic development of, feminist theory could be one beneficial way to move the field forward.


feminist theory, gender, women


Despite a thirty-year history of initiatives and interventions to recruit and retain female engineering students, women remain a minority in engineering in many parts of the world (GUI, Sharp, MUIs, ?cFranzway, 2008), and enrollments of female engineering students in AustraHa and the U.S. have decHned (Grose, 2006; MUIs, Ayre, & GUI, 2008). Clearly, current strategies alone are not enough. In this article, we seek to explore how deeper engagement with feminist theory would help to explain the complex problem of underrepresentation and suggest a promising path forward.

Theories which have been used to study women in engineering include self-efficacy, communities of practice and situated cognition/learning, mentoring, career choice, team functions, identity formation, critical cultural theory, cultural capital, and structuralism. Many of these are common throughout the broader engineering education literature. Although such theories are yielding valuable explanations, we argue that explidtly feminist theories are also needed to iUiiminate deep-rooted gender issues in engineering education. For example, self-efficacy, as applied to studies of engineering students, acknowledges the experiences of women as worthy of study but risks essentializing these experiences as similar for all women engineering students and risks perpetuating negative views of women as overly sensitive or emotional. Indeed the tendency in prior research has been to "cast women in a deficit role, aggregating them into one category, and viewing them as 'other'. . ." (Godfrey, 2003, p. 13). Even when authors do not explidtly discuss the feminist theory that informs their work there can be embedded assumptions and limitations in their approaches that a discussion of feminist dieory can help identify and illuminate. As we discuss in the Literature Review, there is evidence of growing interest in integrating feminist perspectives into engineering education, but the use of feminist theory in mainstream engineering education journals is not widespread. It is a problem if the insights feminist theory provides are not making it into the hands of engineering educators who need to understand and internalize them if we ever hope to address the tremendous challenges to diversity and equity in engineering. …