My daughter, Adelyn, is a member of the engineering club at the community college she attends. Recently, she volunteered at a STEM Day event that the college held for local middle-school girls. She helped the girls build LEGO cars, make predictions about which cars would be fastest, and race the cars down a ramp. This was one of several hands-on workshops and presentations designed to encourage girls to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
As a father, I’m proud of my daughter for pursuing an engineering career, and for helping to bring other young women into the profession. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013 only 7.4% of mechanical engineers were women. As an engineer, I strongly believe that greater gender equity will benefit our profession, not only because our daughters deserve the same opportunities as our sons (which they do), or because our profession needs all the talented young people it can get (which it does), but also because improving the balance of men and women will improve the practice of engineering.
A large number of studies have shown that men and women have different approaches to solving complex problems. That’s not to say that all men or all women think alike. Differences between individuals may be greater than the overall difference between the sexes. It’s also not to say that one gender is smarter than the other. The idea of a fundamental difference in intelligence between men and women has been thoroughly debunked. The research does not say whether the differences in problem-solving strategy are mainly due to social and cultural factors, or a result of brain makeup. Some studies suggest that men’s brains and women’s brains are wired differently, while other studies suggest exactly the opposite. What it does mean is that women (on average) tend to approach problems differently from men (on average).
What are these differences? Studies of high-performing students on the math sections of the SAT and GRE exams found that women, on average, performed better than men on multi-step problems that required detailed calculations. Men performed better, on average, on problems that required a sudden flash of insight.
This might come as a surprise to those who subscribe to the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus school of pop psychology, which holds that men are disciplined and rigorous, while women are more creative. The results certainly don’t imply that men are incapable of focusing on detailed work, or that women can’t have creative inspirations. All of the students included in the study were high scorers whose overall performance was exemplary. But the results do suggest that, in engineering, where both rigorous work and inspiration are necessities, a balance of men and women could be advantageous.
Other studies have shown that men, on average, tend to display higher degrees of overconfidence and competitiveness than women, while women, on average, are more risk-averse. In group situations, men may feel more comfortable shooting from the hip, while women may be less likely to take stands unless they feel they are on solid footing. In engineering, there is a need for a balance between confidence and caution. Confidence is needed to try new things, and caution is needed to execute them successfully. Once again, a better balance between men and women may be helpful in achieving goals.
There are some who argue that the low proportion of women in engineering reflects a fundamental difference between men and women. Women, the argument goes, are by nature either uninterested in, or unsuited for, engineering careers. If this were true, you would expect the proportion of women in engineering to be the same throughout the world. In fact, the percentage of women engineers varies by country. In China, about 40% of engineers are women. You also wouldn’t expect the proportion of women in engineering to change with time. In fact, the percentage of women engineers in the US has been steadily increasing.
It is precisely because of the differences between men and women that the engineering profession would benefit from greater participation by women. Engineering is a team sport. A study of student design teams at Stanford University over a nearly 25-year period showed that the most successful teams were those that incorporated the most diverse range of personalities. Including both men and women is one of the best ways to ensure this. Let’s hope that, by the time my daughter graduates, being the only girl in the class will no longer be a common experience.