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17 January 2007 PR 07/06

More women students choose engineering — but not as a career

While more women today are studying engineering, many use it as a launch base for a variety of other careers, according to new research by Loughborough University.

Government initiatives encourage women into what has been regarded as a tough, heavy and dirty profession, but they are often turned off by the teaching and learning methods used in higher education, says the study, which has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

As a result, rising numbers of women engineering students have failed to translate into an equivalent increase in those taking up the profession for a living. The study, which involved finding out students’ views before, during and after an industrial placement, throws light on the experiences of women in a largely male-dominated environment, and the strategies they adopt for coping.

Some were at a post-1992 university, and more likely to be mature or part-time students. They had different experiences and priorities to the mostly post A-level undergraduates at the other establishment involved, a pre-1992 university. The researchers found that women students had identified engineering degrees as a good basis for a variety of career paths. However, they found that the most useful skills on transferring to the workplace were practical and generic ones.

Indeed, students of both sexes were critical of content, assessment methods, and emphasis on theory in their college courses, and wanted instead a more practical and relevant curriculum. The study says that the transition from education to work can be difficult for students in terms of adjusting to the practicalities and routines of work, as well as the workplace culture. Industrial placements can ease this process, and help women engineering students make choices about their careers.

Loughborough’s Professor Bagilhole, from the Department of Social Sciences, led the study. She said: “Women adopt a variety of strategies for coping both as an industrial placement student and in a male-dominated environment. These include acting like one of the boys, accepting gender challenges, building a reputation and downplaying any disadvantages in favour of advantages.

“Overwhelmingly, women found that, both in the engineering classroom and workplace, their gender was, unwittingly, likely to ensure that they received more help than their male counterparts. On the negative side, this indicates that women are widely viewed in engineering as less capable than their male counterparts.”

Women perceived themselves to be more employable as a result of their gender, and felt that companies were trying to recruit more females in order to improve their image.

Professor Bagilhole added: “A drive to recruit more women into the industry is commendable, but this has had the effect of making them wonder whether they have been employed for their capabilities or their gender. Alternatively, this has also led women to believe - possibly falsely - that engineering workplaces would be equitable for women, posing the question of whether ‘getting in’ is the same as ‘getting on’ in these industries.”

Women students were found to value their status as a ‘novelty’ in engineering, and held traditionally stereotypical views of women outside the profession.

Professor Bagilhole commented: “These attitudes may be a result of their assimilation into the industry culture, and they do little to further women’s causes in engineering.”

ENDS

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Notes to editors

  1. The research project ‘Women Engineering Students’ Workplace Experiences: Impact on Career Interventions’ was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
  2. Methodology: Interviews and focus groups involving more than 50 women students from a pre- and post-1992 university – before, during and after their industrial placement - explored their experiences and reflections. There was also an e-mail survey involving more than 800 male and female engineering undergraduates at the same establishments
  3. The ESRC is the UK’s largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC’s planned total expenditure in 2006-07 is £169 million. At any one time the ESRC At any time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk
  4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk
  5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as ‘good’.
  6. Loughborough has an established reputation for excellence in teaching and research, strong links with industry, and unrivalled sporting achievement. Assessments of teaching quality by the Quality Assurance Agency place it in the top flight of UK universities; the National Student Survey ranked Loughborough in the top five among full-time students; and industry highlights the University in its top five for graduate recruitment. Around 40% of Loughborough’s income is for research, and 60% for teaching. The University has been awarded five Queen's Anniversary Prizes: for its collaboration with aerospace and automotive companies such as BAE Systems, Ford and Rolls Royce; for its work in developing countries; for pioneering research in optical engineering; for its world-leading role in sports research, education and development; and for its outstanding work in evaluating and helping to develop social policy-related programmes.

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