Challenges Of Being A Woman In Engineering
The topic of gender differences in career choices has received a lot of attention over the past years in Western countries. Researchers in those countries specifically wanted to understand why women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Unfortunately, this topic has not received the same level of attention in Arab countries despite the fact that official numbers indicate that female representation in STEM fields is consistently low (Center for Educational Research and Development, 2018).
Given the above, my colleagues and I have embarked on a project that aims at shedding light on this phenomena in Lebanon. We had previously published a paper (Mozahem at al., 2018) that uncovered that gender differences in career aspirations exist and that these differences emerge during school years (the results of this research were summarized in a previous article published in Science Trends). More recently, we have published a second article in which we aimed at understanding the challenges faced by female students in Lebanon who choose to study engineering. The study also aimed at understand whether certain support structures existed thereby allowing female engineers to persist in their chosen career.
In this second study, we conducted interviews with 30 females who are currently studying engineering in several universities in Lebanon both at the graduate and the undergraduate level. Originally we had anticipated that it might be difficult to find 30 students who were willing to share the details of their experiences with us, especially since much of the data is personal in nature. Fortunately for us, what we found was that the participants were more than willing to talk about their experiences precisely because no one was talking about it. As one of the participants put it, “finally, someone is showing interest…” The respondents were so willing and eager to share their experiences that none of them requested to use a pseudonym even though they were informed of the option to do so.
The result of our study indicate that female engineers in Lebanon face significant hurdles which mostly arise with how society as large views them as overstepping the boundaries of their roles. In the majority of cases, the participants reported that the extended family and friends of the family were vehemently opposed to the idea of these females studying engineering. Many of them recalled that they were asked why study a difficult and demanding subject when in the end they will have to devote most of their time to taking care of their families. One of the participants noted that some of her extended family members asked her amusingly whether she was going to pop open the hood of the car in order to fix it. Another participant noted that when she told her relatives that she was planning on studying communications engineering, they asked whether she was going to sell telephones.
The negative feedback did not only come from relatives, but also from the workplace. As part of their education, students are expected to complete a short internship at a company. Participants talked about needing to have a male engineer with them when they go to the construction site in order to be taken seriously. They also talked about the way that some of the male workers looked at them, despite the fact that they were wearing on-site uniforms which included a safety helmet, large boots, and baggy jeans. This state of affairs led some of the participants to develop the belief that the site was not a place for a woman. These work related difficulties extended to other type of engineering jobs. One of the participants talked about the verbal and psychological harassment that she suffered from at the hands of some of her male colleagues while working a biomedical engineer.
Fortunately, not all news was bad news. While the participants were quick to identify the barriers that they faced, they were also quick to identify the support structures that allowed them to persist in such a hostile environment. The parents for example played a crucial role that more than counterbalanced the effect of the extended family members. It is well-documented that parent’s beliefs predict children’s self-perception (Simpkins, Fredricks, & Eccles, 2012). Many of the participants talked about how their parent’s positive reaction motivated them to go ahead with their plans.
In addition to their parent’s support, participants displayed high levels of self-efficacy. Many of them spoke about their passion to their occupations and how they believed that they were able to both benefit and contribute to their fields. Some of them even talked about choosing the field for the sake of challenging themselves to do something difficult.
Our study highlights the difficulties that are faced by women who choose to study engineering in Lebanon. The study also highlights that the negative effect that the wider social environment has can be counterbalanced by a strong supportive inner environment.
- Center for Educational Research and Development. (2018). The Statistical Bulletin for the Academic Year 2016 – 2017. Available from: https://www.crdp.org/stat-details?id=25998&la=en
- Mozahem, N. A., Kozbar, D. K., Al Hassan, A. W. and Mozahem, L. A. (2018), “Gender differences in career choices among students in secondary school”, International Journal of School & Educational Psychology, [Online] Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21683603.2018.1521759
- Simpkins, S. D., Fredricks, J. A., & Eccles, J. S. (2012). Charting the Eccles’ expectancy-value model from mothers’ beliefs in childhood to youths’ activities in adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 48(4), 1019-1032. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027468