Gender Discrimination Among Female Engineers
Colleges like the University of Colorado Boulder must prepare women entering male-dominated fields beyond their education, especially engineering. Female engineers continue to be a minority in both the workforce and in higher education. In a time where women find themselves saying “Me Too” to gender discrimination, professionals and students say it is crucial that colleges become a part of the conversation and solution to this inequality.
Despite recent efforts to encourage women to enter science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM, fields, women remain a minority. According to the Office of the Chief Economist, women in the U.S. only held 24 percent of STEM jobs in 2015 and only hold 30 percent of STEM undergraduate degrees. The Pew Research Center published a report in 2018 that shows 50 percent of women in STEM report experiencing gender discrimination. For those women who work in mostly male-dominated workplaces, 78 percent reported gender discrimination.
One form of gender discrimination is the pay gap. A survey conducted by New Scientist and SRG in 2017 found that among U.S. respondents, men in science and engineering earned an average of 11 percent more than females. Additionally, it found that this pay gap increases with age and experience.
Jessica Lorentz, co-founder of Bolder Energy Engineers, had a similar experience while working as a field energy engineer. She says it was not until she entered the workforce that gender discrimination began.
“Subtly and never directly, I became aware that my colleagues were being paid more. When I was moving into more leadership roles, I started realizing there was a gender gap,” said Lorentz. “And that’s my biggest regret, that I never talked to my bosses directly about it.”
Mahalie Hill, a freshman majoring in environmental engineering at CU Boulder, experienced gender discrimination at school. Unlike Lorentz, Hill spoke to authorities.
During Hill’s engineering projects class, she was one of three women in a class of about 20. After class, Hill’s professor pulled her and the other two women aside to ask if they are comfortable with being in a group of all males. Hill felt discriminated against, because none of the men had to discuss their privilege nor take responsibility for their actions. Hill wanted a conversation with the whole class.
“When I confronted my professors with this idea, I actually received some backlash from them,” said Hill. “That they felt that if they were to present this in the class, that the males in our class would not really recognize it and would go on the defensive… So, that discussion with our class was never had.”
Maanav Jhatakia, a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering at CU Boulder, says he has seen similar situations to Hill’s, in which professors unintentionally undermine female engineering students.
“The professor obviously had good intentions, but it’s really… a conversation that needs to be given to the whole class,” said Jhatakia. “It’s a two-way street, really. You can’t just expect women to come in, one, at a minority and, two, to just make their voice heard over everyone else’s.”
Moving forward, Jhatakia recommends the engineering school at CU Boulder encourage more group work. He thinks collaboration at the education level will allow for a change in the male mindset to see women as equals both in class and in the workplace.
Lindsey Hamblin, a freshman majoring in chemical engineering at CU Boulder, says she has not encountered any gender discrimination thus far. However, the “Me Too” movement has raised concerns about what her experience will be like in the workforce. She hopes for more insight into the engineering experience.
“The biggest advice I would give to CU for empowering females in engineering is just making sure that everyone gets the opportunity to see what engineering is actually like,” said Hamblin. “You can talk about how cool the work is, or how hard the work is, but a lot of times it’s the work environment that is going to lead to that type of community that you want in a good working relationship.”
Gender discrimination needs addressing in college by professors and students alike. Jessica Lorentz says that teaching students to have critical conversations will help prevent the normalization of gender discrimination and encourage people to speak up for themselves.
“Any coursework that colleges or assistant colleges could give in helping students know how to effectively communicate, especially when there’s a lot of emotional charge around it, would be beneficial for our whole society,” said Lorentz.
Lorentz says that she wishes she had learned these skills prior to entering the workforce. Perhaps then she would have known how to approach difficult conversations instead of avoiding them.
“I might have had a different experience because of it.”