The position of women can be carefully traced through history to be able to divulge social ills through which societies have misplaced the position of women. This takes us to look at how the community views gender and sex. Sex is viewed as the biological distinction between men and women’s genital setups but gender is a socially built set of ideas that define the roles and values which distinguish between masculine and feminine (Little, 2016). Men have been viewed as the head of the family who controls everything while women have been taken as a powerless child-bearing machine, bought through lobola, for men’s sexual fulfilment. The Morden Christian societies also tend to embrace this inequality as God’s design and citing the Bible where it uses the term ‘man’ to represent people. This essay will try to give an analysis of the underrepresentation of women in the engineering profession, the causes of the imbalance, problems being faced by female engineers and present possible solution strategies.
Through the ancient communities, women have been regarded as inferior to men and their roles being to keep the home, children and to obey their husbands. Culture has been the central tool in maintaining this system of inequality, regarding it as normal and justifying ill practices like bride abduction. In my view, men are not born oppressors of women but it’s constructed through the cultural setting. This is supported by Mandela in his popular autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, when he says “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite” (Mandela, 1994). If the cultural setting had been structured in a way of equality, there would not be any act of gender bias and suppression of women.
The pathway to the engineering profession follows the several stages of education that are primary, secondary and tertiary. In primary education, the performance, as well as chances of taking engineering degrees at university, are the same for both boys and girls, with girls even performing better (Van Houtte, 2004). At high school, the distinction begins to surface, with girls performing better in arts and humanities than in sciences. Some scholars’ surveys and researches show and argue that girls are generally not good in math and science at high school citing reasons such as their negative attitude, lack of confidence and an easily giving up on challenging science and mathematical problems (Badger, 1981; Hargreaves, et al., 2008; OECD, 2015). On the contrary, I don’t agree with these conclusions but rather argue that it’s not their attitude but the conditions which are not favorable. Girls are facing challenges in school and these are not regarded seriously. It’s notable that bullying of boys by boys is physical and it can be easily brought to book by the school disciplinary authorities but bullying of girls by boys is usually verbal, emotional, physical contact of sexual nature and even through social media which causes psychological suppression and social exclusion. These challenges are holding girls back and sadly there are no or poorly structured girl child support networks in schools.
There is no level playing field in the education sector as science subjects are regarded as men’s subjects, which poses a gender stereotypical harm on girls. It’s historically believed that women are not good in math and science, so usually families and parents tend to discourage girls from choosing engineering as a career, with a view that the industries are gender biased. Statistics show that only about 29% A level students are females and consequentially fewer girls will be enrolled for engineering at University (Peers, 2018). It is therefore critical to note that the gender imbalance is already created along the way to the university.
Some scholars argue that the reason behind the small percentage of female students studying engineering at university is that some of them leave engineering due to gender discrimination like in the allocation of roles especially in group projects where the practical and technical duties are taken by men and females are given theoretical roles such as recording results (Rensburg, 2018). At university, female students suffer gross sexual harassment and most of them are left pregnant. Universities respond by expelling those pregnant female students but leaving behind their male partners. This is a clear act of gender inequality, as supported by Minister Bathabile Dhlamini’s comments captured by news24 on 24 November 2018 (Peterson, 2018). Even in universities where they allow pregnant women and women with babies, the conditions are still unfavorable. The university residences do not take into consideration, the special needs of these women and therefore their life at university becomes tough (Masanja, et al., 2001). From another, most girls are now taking marriage as an achievement and therefore they put more effort on attaining good looks than better marks, basing on the belief that failure is countered by getting a good husband. Usually, most girls become more sexually active by the time they enter university, so most of them engage in acts of prostitution which counteract performance. But mostly, females who engage in prostitution are just victims of economic circumstances at university. A good example is that of Zimbabwean female students in Russia who were reported to be engaging in prostitution for survival as their government was not supporting them (Ndlovu, 2019). On a controversial point of view, the exams in school are not a good way of testing students’ intelligence but rather testing their memory capabilities, so female students may fail the exams because of challenges at school but that is not a good indicator that they are not intelligent (The New York Times, 2011).
Women have been segregated from different engineering fields by legislation. This includes the popular laws such as the one passed by the ILO in 1935, banning women from being employed in underground mines, of which many countries including South Africa were signatories to, up to until 1996 when the same law was revoked in South Africa (Klerk, et al., 2015). This was literally put in place to protect women from the dangerous underground mines but practically to discriminate them because no protective law can harm the same people it has to protect. The long period of denial and segregation has created generational psychological inferiority of women in the mining sector. This long polarization of the mining engineering sector makes it very difficult even for high school girls to make their career choices based on the history of the ban. New legislation has been put in place to enhance gender balance in the engineering professions, but the imbalance still exists.
The fact that there is still use of terms such as ‘man power’ in engineering fields and ‘mankind’ in government politics, means that men continue to be regarded as the definition of people and the center of power. The belief that women were not strong enough to work in the mines and other engineering fields such as military engineering is a clear insult to women. At the height of the Second World War, almost all men were recruited into the army creating a vacuum in the mines and industries. Women almost completely took over the industries and were now working underground in the mines to mine minerals used to make military artillery while others were fully into the military and explosive engineering to constantly supply the troops at war. Along the passage of history, a lot of women have done incredible achievements and contributions to engineering but their stories and history are covered and not considered. Few scholars know about Emily Warren Roebling, who became very instrumental in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge which is a National Historical Monument in the USA (Arbeiter, 2018). The list is endless and includes some of the following: Beulah Louise Henry, Hedy Lamarr, Stephanie Louise Kwolek, and Mary Anderson (Zolinger, 2013). A lot of women now are breaking the odds by performing very well in the engineering professions across the world. One ideal example is Elizabeth Diller, professor of architecture at Princeton University, who was listed in the top 100 most influential people for her key roles in the construction of some of the world’s most beautiful buildings in Europe (Varley, 2018).
Though statistics show that there is a positive improvement on the gender balance in the engineering profession, it is regrettable that women still face a lot of challenges in the industries and at workplaces. The first discrimination comes with the allocation of roles in the workplace. Most women are allocated menial tasks such as secretarial work while their male counterparts are given more interesting, challenging and real-world engineering tasks. This on its own causes women to feel that they are segregated and inferior to men. It also ensures that the salaries of female engineers are less than that of male engineers, also referred to as the ‘pay gap’ (Lorcan, 2017). To me, it seems like the legislation put in place for gender equality is just there to formalise the discrimination of women from the engineering profession because there is no difference between a female secretary of the ancient days and a female engineer of today as their tasks are the same. In other words, it’s employing secretaries who studied engineering. Most female engineers just make the decision of leaving the engineering profession and join the secretarial profession in full time where they can get better pay or go into the education sector as lecturers and tutors. It has been established that most female graduate engineers either enter never enter the engineering profession or leave between the ages of 20-29 (Lorcan, 2017). Some scholars argue that most female engineers are not committed and confident of their work, especially in making such final decisions to a project before it can be made public for evaluation, such that they become less competent as compared to men. It can also be argued that some female engineers don’t make informed decisions when choosing the engineering career, with some of them being influenced by their pass rate, family, school teachers and not passion, the decision of which they will regret after graduating from university and decide to leave engineering profession. However other studies have established that the main reason is the ill-treatment, e.g., 70% of South African female engineers leave because they are feeling uncomfortable to work as lonely rangers in the jungle discriminative men (Berg, 2019). Other female engineers who leave the engineering profession just cite personal issues as their reason for leaving the profession. I have tried to look into such personal issues which can be associated with female engineers. Female engineers are victims of sexual harassment, in the form of hugging, indecent touching, denigrating jokes, abuse of social media with the intention of causing sexual harm and coerced sexual engagement, by their male counterparts at workplaces and in some cases by their bosses, which has been referred to as ‘sex for job’ (Northfield, 2018). Another reason is the ‘work-life’ balance to a married female engineer (Romila, et al., 2018). Since engineering is associated with working for long hours, a conflict will arise between the family duties for the wife and the time of work, especially if the husband is not working in the engineering field. This leads to many women to leave the engineering profession to preserve their marriages.
After raising all the above problems being faced by women in the engineering profession and gender imbalance, I have come up with a brief outline of the corrective measures which can be put in place to address the imbalance. Women should be accorded an opportunity to enter university with lower grades considering the challenges they face in their early education which reduces grades. Female students have to be supported financially by the government so that they will not be sexually exploited for the sake of money. There is a need for support groups, female pressure groups, and supportive platforms and channels through which the issues affecting female engineers can be easily communicated and solved. There needs to be legislation that provides for the establishment of at least one office of a female engineer in every engineering firm who will look after the fair treatment of female engineers. It is also of ultimate importance to bring more professional female engineers into class and as teaching staff at university to give motivation to female students in engineering.
To sum up the whole matter, it can be concluded that there is progress in addressing the underrepresentation of women in the engineering profession though it’s not just an issue of the workplace itself but a complex system of interdependent factors which hinder the development of a female engineer from the community, to high school, university and the entry into the engineering professions. Therefore, in the crafting of a solution framework, it is critical to introduce solutions along the whole path of a small girl starting primary school to a professional engineer.