Obstacles to Gender Parity in Engineering Education

By Rohatynskyj, Marta; Davidson, Valerie et al. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Obstacles to Gender Parity in Engineering Education


Rohatynskyj, Marta, Davidson, Valerie, Stiver, Warren, Hayward, Maren, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

Traditionally low enrolment rates of women in engineering programs in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union have been accounted for by what can be termed a Western women in engineering meta-narrative. Borrowing and paraphrasing Englund and Leach's (2000:126) definition growing out of the critique of modernity as a basis for the interpretation of local meanings, a meta-narrative constitutes a set of assumptions about a given phenomenon only some of which may be enunciated in a given context. Numerous studies of women in engineering programs in the West thus imply all elements of this meta-narrative while perhaps foregrounding one or two. A cornerstone of this discourse is the assumption of the male-female duality and the identification of engineering as a =masculine profession' as a result of the identification of technology itself as masculine. A further dichotomy of a female orientation of caring and social involvement and a complementary male orientation of abstract and instrumental thought leads to a concern with the importance of gender in engineering pedagogy and an inevitable 'chilly' social climate for women in engineering programs. The solution to this disadvantaged position for women is seen as an increase in the proportion of women in the profession. Early literature talks about a 'critical mass' set at a particular percentage that would allow women to reshape their position and experience fewer career obstacles, although more recent writing has been more cautious (Etzkowitz et al 1994; 2000). Kantor's (1977; Gupta and Sharma 2003) concept of 'tokenism' seems to embody many of the features of the Western women in engineering meta-narrative.

Although not discounting the importance of rates of women's enrolment in engineering programs as worthy of concern, the comparison of these rates is itself problematical. It is especially suspect outside of the Western countries in which the meta-narrative evolved. The problem is a familiar one and one that Englund and Leach (2000) address within the context of ethnography. The problem lies in uncovering the variability that similar rates of enrolment conceal within different cultural and historical contexts. For example, it may be asked of two diverse national settings what combination of factors have come together to result in similar rates and what local meanings account for them? Thus the tension between modernist interpretations and local particularities surfaces in the problem of women in engineering globally, as well. The disentanglement of imposed assumptions from empirical realities is particularly crucial in this case as policy initiatives on the part of professional organizations, development bodies and governments must be tuned to effective management. The parachuting of a Western developed women in engineering meta-narrative into non-Western settings would result in the same kind of dissatisfaction and frustration witnessed in response to the parachuting of the gender and development discourse into vastly different cultural settings internationally (Cornwall, Harrison and Whitehead 2004).

The complexities of preparing for comparison involve a number of considerations. First among them is the evolution of gender studies in general to encompass a relativization of both male and female, to include studies of masculinities. This is witnessed not only in the focus on maleness cross culturally (Connell 1995) but also in the growing feminist critique of an exclusive focus on women in development in general (Cornwall 2000; Chant and Gutman 2005). Secondly, social science theory has moved to a study of process as underlying social identities characterized by the inclusion of theoretical works in gender studies that render gender as performance and not a fixed attribute of the individual (Bourdieu 1977; Foucault 1978; Butler 1993). Gender is currently understood as contextually and historically contingent, culturally constructed and performed. …

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