Industry figures have called for more action on gender bias in engineering after a US report found young girls’ career aspirations are impacted by a belief that brilliance is a male trait.
The New York University study found that by the age of six, girls were less likely than boys to associate brilliance with their own gender and more likely to avoid activities requiring the characteristic.
The study – published in the journal Science – discovered that although boys and girls aged five equally associated their gender with brilliance, girls aged six and seven were instead more likely to associate their gender with trying hard.
“In earlier work, we found that adult women were less likely to receive higher degrees in fields thought to require ‘brilliance,’ and these new findings show that these stereotypes begin to impact girls’ choices at a heartbreakingly young age,” said Princeton University professor of philosophy Sarah-Jane Leslie, who contributed to the study.
The study suggested that stereotypes in certain fields – for example maths and physics – lead to a belief that innate ability or brilliance is a male trait, and could undermine female interest in pursuing careers in those areas.
There have been calls from the engineering industry to do more to tackle the effects of gender stereotyping at a young age.
“I absolutely recognise the picture in this US study. Young women in UK seem to believe that engineering is somehow a male preserve,” said ICE director general Nick Baveystock.
“We know that there are really good business reasons to attract a more diverse workforce. But we have to persuade young women, their teachers and, above all, their parents that engineering is a creative, rewarding career in which one can truly transform our world.”
Some called for a radically different approach to tackling the problem.
“The research shows girls clearly do have an interest in science, technology and engineering subjects at school so we need to find ways to help this to translate into a higher number of women entering the industry,” said Institution of Engineering and Technology spokesperson and toy engineer Mamta Singhal.
“The marketing of toys for girls is a great place to start to change perceptions of the opportunities within engineering. The toy options for girls should go beyond dolls and dress up so we can cultivate their enthusiasm and inspire them to grow up to become engineers.”
Others called for an overhaul in the way the industry markets itself to girls and women.
“We need companies and institutions to better market themselves to be gender inclusive so girls see career opportunities and progression pathways which best suit them and for companies to promote that women are a valuable asset to have in their business,” said Bam Nuttall beyond zero advisor Helen James.
The researchers stressed that more is needed to investigate how broadly the results apply. Currently 9% of the engineering workforce is female.