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MIT study identifies early barriers for women in engineering

Women's PPE

Negative group dynamics towards women in team-based projects is to blame for early disillusion, according to a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The MIT study has found that women are marginalised from an early stage in the engineering profession.

Internships, team-based educational activities, and summer work opportunities set the pattern for social dynamics where women are expected to focus on menial tasks while men take on the most challenging problems, according to the study.

In the United States, 20% of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women, but the workforce is only 13% female. 

The study was based on diary accounts from 40 undergraduate students at MIT, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

One student reported: “[T]wo girls in a group had been working on the robot we were building in that class for hours, and the guys in their group came in and within minutes had sentenced them to doing menial tasks while the guys went and had all the fun in the machine shop. We heard the girls complaining about it…”

“For many women, their first encounter with collaboration is to be treated in gender stereotypical ways,” noted the report. 

The study suggested that women enter the profession for different reasons than men. Social responsibility and making a difference in people’s lives were common reasons for women taking up engineering, according to the report, but early negative experiences cause them to question these assumptions. 

“It’s a cultural phenomenon,” said Susan Silbey, professor of humanities, sociology, and anthropology at MIT, and co-author on the project. 

However, the findings showed that the issue is not entirely grounded in the engineering curriculum.

“We think engineering education is quite successful by its own standards,” said Silbey said. “The teaching environment is for the most part very successful.”

The reported has suggested that the challenge faced by many women starts with the transition to the workplace.

A possible solution is to conduct “directed internship seminars” to examine how women experience early carrier work placements. 

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