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What can give women more healthy confidence in choosing science and engineering?

Are you healthy enough for the rigors of science and engineering? Students may pick the school they attend because it “fits” their professional value orientations. Others wait for a school to choose them. How does confidence play a role in working in a field that's a best fit for your health? Let's take the example of women in engineering. Why do one in four women leave engineering compared to one in ten men, with education, job status, and technical ability being equal?

What can give women more healthy confidence in choosing science and engineering?
Anne Hart, photography.

The reason is not because the women are having babies every two years while still employed and can't physically work on petroleum engineering rigs or perform electrical engineering circuit design in military or government work, or invent, design, and innovate. Even though both men and women do suffer old age discrimination in engineering, why more women leave engineering often is a problem with confidence.

Anaximander (c. 610-546 BCE) is widely regarded as the world’s first physicist – the first to record his belief that nature followed fixed laws. He conducted the earliest recorded experiment, and introduced the sundial and other instruments, according to the Imgur site.

Aryabhatta (476-550) was a pioneer of mathematics and astronomy in India. He is believed to have devised the concept of zero and worked on the approximation of pi, according to the Imgur site. What would happen to a woman back then who regarded herself as a physicist?

Hypatia (c. 360-415) was the headmaster of the Platonist school at Alexandria, where she taught mathematics and astronomy. She invented the astrolabe and perhaps the hydrometer, and wrote several major books on geometry, according to the Imgur site. She ended up executed and flayed for being a brilliant scientist of her era. Have women learned that to have confidence is healthy or unhealthy in public career choices versus secret hobbies such as reading science books privately but doing something in life that takes less confidence in which to attempt or persist?

Icons of science: Healthy images to inspire confidence in women?

You have other icons of science, Abū Alī al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (965-1040) was a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, sometimes known in Europe as simply “the physicist.” He invented the camera obscura and is the father of modern optics, says the Imgur site. And Leonardo Fibonacci (1170-1250) is the namesake of Fibonacci’s sequence, a series of integers closely connected with ideas such as the golden ratio and the golden spiral. The Fibonacci numbers are still used to describe everything from computer search techniques to uncurling ferns, according to the Imgur site.

Throughout the years, what would have happened to women with the same interests and abilities? Would they be steered into painting the portraits of women and signing anonymous or writing poetry, or perhaps stories? Or would they have been allowed to practice their occupations and research inclinations?

Are women leaving engineering for healthcare fields, academia, or entrepreneurism?

The issue in current times is still about too many women leaving engineering careers, according to the November 6, 2009 news release, "UWM study explores why women leave engineering careers." A 2009 University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee (UWM) study explores why women leave engineering careers. The NSF-funded study seeks input from women with engineering degrees. You have women trained and experienced as engineers becoming chancellors of universities or entering academia as educators or administrators. And you have plenty of women trained and experienced as engineers becoming entrepreneurs.

At the same time when it comes to science attracting more women, notice that the medical school students are at least half-filled with female students. But what is it about engineering that drives many women away and into medicine instead? Or in opening businesses not connected to engineering and invention, but more toward sales and Internet marketing innovations? The nurturing factor? Or an interest in the science of the body? Or for the entrepreneurs, opening Internet auction businesses and running businesses rather than inventing gadgets?

Or is it women don't tinker with gadgets in garages as much as men in "man caves" do with buddies interested in building devices, gadgets, or robots? Women in robotics, for example, work on exoskeletons and devices to help people with disabilities walk, perhaps building better wheelchairs or orthopedic inventions. But there are plenty of examples of women in physics and engineering who work alongside men with similar compensation. So why are women told they don't have enough confidence in their ability to persist on the job as "a rambling wreck from xyz tech and a heck of an engineer?"

While only one in 10 male engineers leave their field by the time they reach their 30s, about one in four women are not working in engineering despite having completed the necessary education

A study at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM) explored the reasons for the relatively large gap between the number of women who obtain engineering degrees but leave the field or never enter, and those who pursue careers and remain. Could it be about abuse by peers, lack of confidence by the women, old age discrimination of women at a younger age that males in engineering? Or is it something else, such as wanting a job where one will be appreciated more, as in a field that focuses on nourishing, nurturing, or compassion?

Not necessarily. It's more about self confidence and achieving a goal or inventing and innovating to fill a great need in society. So why do women veer toward entrepreneurism and businesses such as online auctions more than they steer toward tinkering in their garage with other women building new types of computers and software like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs did decades ago? Interest? Confidence or camaraderie?

Most of the research on effective interventions for women in engineering has focused on increasing women's choice of engineering as a major, explained Nadya Fouad, UWM Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology, according to the news release, UWM study explores why women leave engineering careers. "But now that more women are completing degrees in the field, an equally important issue concerns retention," she observed.

The issue is retention of women in the profession of engineering

POWER (Project on Women Engineers' Retention) is an online survey of women alumni from more than 30 universities that have awarded the most bachelor's degrees in engineering to women. But the survey is open to all women who have completed at least a bachelor's degree in engineering, whether or not they have worked as engineers.

This is the first systematic study of women's retention in engineering, says Fouad, according to the news release. She and co-author Romila Singh, UWM assistant professor of business, will investigate three areas of self-confidence – engineering tasks, work/family balance and workplace climate – for women in different stages of their careers (5, 10, 15 and 20 years post-graduation).

The study is supported by a half-million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation. NSF also funded a previous study by a team of vocational psychologists, including Fouad, that identified factors that steer girls toward or away from math and science in middle and high school.

Findings of the engineering study will be used to design and implement effective policies or interventions to help increase the retention of women in engineering careers

"If we are better able to understand the factors influencing career decisions among these women, we'll be better able to support their careers," said Fouad, according to the news release.

The POWER survey asks participants about their workplace, their thoughts about their careers, their efforts to balance work and nonwork activities, and several other topics. It takes about 30 minutes, and respondents can complete it all at once or come back to the Website later to finish. Maybe one issue with engineers is that often there's old age discrimination, say some of the male engineers. Who's going to hire an engineer who loses his or her job at the age of 50 or 60 and needs to work?

Is age and looks in engineering similar to appearance in TV anchoring for women?

In engineering, women aren't going to be told, you're too old, too ugly, and you don't defer to men, as has happened in the TV journalism field. Or are women in science still subject to promotion based on age and appearance? Office still have back office and front office appearance guidelines for hiring receptionists that are supposed to look like 'flowers.' But what about innovation in engineering smarts and women at different stages of life?

On the other hand, a woman who's a medical doctor is in the peak of her career and often doesn't get told she's too old to be a physician when she's at the age when most doctors are reaching the peak of their careers in medicine. It's a choice. But then again, four years of college in engineering does qualify a student to walk from college into a career that pays high enough wages to at least live independently from parents without necessarily having to enroll in another four or more years of graduate work, if jobs are hiring. Does engineering depend on upper body physical strength or brains, drafting blueprints, and keyboarding?

This year some of the highest paid engineering jobs for new college graduates are in petroleum engineering. But does that field appeal to most women in engineering, say compared to electrical or computer engineering? Another career path for female engineering graduates is in government or military careers that may offer a path to promotions and further education. Also see, "Research findings contradict myth of high engineering dropout rate."

Another study reported that women aren't becoming engineers because of confidence issues

Women are less likely than men to stay in engineering majors and to become engineers because they want to have families and are more insecure about their math abilities, right? Not necessarily, suggests a new study, "Professional Role Confidence and Gendered Persistence in Engineering," published in the October 2011 issue of the American Sociological Review.

The study is part of a larger project, "Future Paths: Developing Diverse Leadership for Engineering," funded by the National Science Foundation, says an October 25, 2011 news release, "Study: Women aren't becoming engineers because of confidence issues." Also you may wish to check out the article, "Subtle differences and cultural ideology can impede confidence."

The study found that the real issue for female engineering students is their lack of "professional role confidence." Among other things, this term encompasses people's faith in their ability to go out into the world and be professional engineers and their belief that engineering fits their interests and values, which the study authors refer to as "expertise confidence" and "career-fit confidence," respectively.

"Women engineering students go to the same classes, take the same tests, and get the same GPAs as men, sometimes even higher," said the study's lead author Erin Cech, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University's Clayman Institute for Gender Research, according to the news release. "But, what we found is that the women in our study developed less confidence in their engineering expertise than men did and they also developed less confidence that engineering is the career that fits them best, even though they went through the same preparation process as men."

As result of these confidence issues, women who begin college as engineering majors are less likely than men to remain engineering majors and less likely than men to believe that they will be professional engineers in the future, Cech said in the news release.

So, why do women engineering students develop significantly less confidence than men?

"It stems from very subtle differences in the way that men and women are treated in engineering programs and from cultural ideologies about what it means to be a competent engineer," Cech said in the news release. "Often, competence in engineering is associated in people's minds with men and masculinity more than it is with women and femininity. So, there are these micro-biases that happen, and when they add up, they result in women being less confident in their expertise and their career fit."

The study considers 288 students who entered engineering programs in 2003 at four institutions of higher education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, and Smith College. As part of the study, the students were surveyed in 2003 and again in 2007.

Desire to have families didn't lead women to leave engineering majors in that study

"While our sample is small, we found no evidence that women's desire to have families leads them to leave engineering majors or impacts whether they believe they will be professional engineers in the future," Cech said in the news release. "In addition, for both men and women, there was no evidence that negative math self-assessment predicts persistence in engineering majors or impacts whether they believe they will be professional engineers."

"What we think is going on is that men who have strong traditional family plans may have some expectation of being the bread winner for their family and, therefore, they seek jobs outside of engineering that are actually better paid," Cech said. "So, they go onto law school or into finance or something like that."

Interestingly, the study found that the desire to have a family is negatively associated with whether men believe that they will be professional engineers in the future.

As for what can be done to improve women's confidence and increase the likelihood that they will persist in engineering majors and go onto engineering careers, Cech offered several recommendations. "I think the most direct way that engineering programs can address this issue of women giving up on engineering is by doing a better job of bringing practicing engineers into the classroom," said Cech, who suggested that some of these engineers could be part of panels put on by women in engineering organizations.

Practicing engineers who are brought into classrooms should address the issue of confidence head on, Cech said in the news release. "It would be good for them to talk about their confidence in their expertise and their confidence that engineering is the right fit for them," she said. "If these things can be brought to the forefront and explicitly talked about, it may help women and men engineering students develop confidence of their own."

The issue of confidence

Cech also recommended that engineering programs offer more directed internship opportunities that place students with working engineers on real-world engineering projects. "This experience would integrate explicit learning objectives related to advancement in an engineering career with a broad range of skills required for success as an engineer," Cech said in the news release.

"This type of practical real life experience, designed in part by educators familiar with gender biases in the profession, could help broaden students' often narrow conceptions of the role of engineers to include skills that they might not realize are important such as communication and teamwork. These internships could also increase students' awareness about the wide variety of engineering careers available to them, allowing more students to find their fit within the profession."

Cech's study coauthors include: Brian Rubineau, an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations; Susan Silbey, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Carroll Seron, a Professor in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society at the University of California-Irvine. Their study is part of a larger project, "Future Paths: Developing Diverse Leadership for Engineering," funded by the National Science Foundation. For further information, check out the article, "Developing Diverse Leadership for Engineering - MIT," You also can take a look at the site of the American Sociological Association's publications.

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