The (un)balancing act: the impact of culture on women engineering students' gendered and professional identities
2009-06-12T11:45:35Z (GMT) by
This thesis examines the impact of engineering cultures on women engineering students’ gendered and professional identities. It is simultaneously focused on exploring how identity shapes, and is shaped by, women’s experiences of engineering cultures and the relationship between gendered and professional identities. The research is set within the context of existing research on women in engineering, much of which has focused either on women’s experiences in industry or experiences of staff in academia, which does not acknowledge the importance of higher education (HE) as a gatekeeper to the engineering professions. Furthermore, despite numerous initiatives aimed at increasing the percentage of women entering engineering, the proportion of women studying engineering has remained stable, around fifteen percent, for the last few years. The research is grounded in an interpretivist approach, although it adopts a multimethod research design. Specifically it draws upon qualitative interviews with 43 women and 18 men engineering students, a questionnaire with responses from 656 engineering undergraduates and two focus groups with 13 women engineering students from seven departments at one university. These datasets are analysed with the aid of NVivo and SPSS to explore women engineering students’ career choices; women’s experiences of the HE engineering culture; the relationship between engineering education culture and women’s identities; whether there are cultural nuances between engineering disciplines; and, implications for strategies to attract and retain more women in engineering. Key findings from the research are that women and men make career choices based on similar factors, including the influence of socialisers, knowledge of the engineering professions, skills, ability and attributes, and career rewards. However, the extent to which each of these factors are important is gendered. The research also highlights key characteristics of the HE engineering culture, including competition, camaraderie, gendered humour, intensity, more theoretical than practical, help and support for women students and reinforcement of gender binaries. These findings all suggest that women are assimilated into the engineering culture or, at least, develop coping mechanisms for surviving in the existing culture. These strategies reveal a complex and difficult balancing act between being a woman and being an engineer, in claiming a rightful place as an engineer, denying gendered experiences and becoming critical of other women. The research also tackles two key issues, rarely discussed in the extant literature. Firstly the help and support women students receive from lecturers and other staff, and the negative impact this has, and may continue to have, on women. Secondly, the analysis of discipline differences shows that design and technology is significantly different from other engineering disciplines in terms of culture(s) and women’s experiences. The thesis concludes that women’s enculturation into engineering results in their ‘doing gender’ in a particular way. This means that women’s implicit and explicit devaluing and rejection of femaleness, fails to challenge the gendered cultures of engineering and, in many ways, upholds an environment which is hostile to women.