Women in engineering: building ecosystems of equality
By Natalia Zlachevsky – Mora Laiño
Translation: Analía Iufa y Belén Gauto.
Edition: Florencia Carotti.
If provided with the image of a hand using a grinder or a chop saw but there are no clues as to whose hand it is, most of the observers will think that such hand belongs to a man. The use of electric tools seems to be an activity solely performed by men, as are jobs that imply physical force, or programming. However, there is no biological determination proving that men are naturally more skilled than women to perform such tasks. We are therein exposed to the fact that we live in a world ruled by sociocultural determination.
During the last decades, several international instruments and theoretical and legal frameworks have been developed in order to tackle gender inequality. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development established by the United Nations in 2015 reassured the consensus on the relevance of this matter in the political agendas worldwide. Yet, what is the true state of the matter in the world of engineering? How do gender stereotypes work therein?
The preference for certain careers cannot be considered separately from the persistence of conditions imposed by societies based on roles assigned to boys and girls during processes of gender socialization. In Argentina, according to data provided by the University Policies Secretariat of the National Ministry of Education, women represent 30% of university enrollment in courses related to engineering, form which only 6% have enrolled in engineering degrees such as electronics or mechanics.
Such percentage is completely opposite to that yielded when observing courses of social sciences, nursing, teaching, or psychology. This over-representation may be interpreted as an extension of the roles socially assigned to women and the so-called apparent innate capacity of women in relation with the mistakenly called “soft” skills.
However, it is remarkable that, when considering the field of engineering towards a social transformation, the figures represent another reality. In Engineering without Borders Argentina (EWB-Ar), 50% of the volunteers who participate in infrastructure works for socially vulnerable communities are women. The fact that in technological projects of a social nature women’s participation is noticeably higher than in other contexts, is also closely related with the role women have traditionally held in association with care and solidarity activities.
EWB-Ar projects are characterized by promoting equality between men and women when assigning tasks, in decision making, and in the use of strength and tools. Most of the women who volunteer are engineering students or engineers who have a paid job in the private sector, and who have encountered great inequalities in their academic and professional paths.
This much is demonstrated by an anonymous internal survey applied by EWB-Ar in 2017. By comparing the answers of recent and regular volunteers, the survey demonstrates that sustained participation in the organization projects in which the dynamics are more equal results in a greater awareness of the inequality and discrimination these women face throughout their lives in different environments. “In class, I had to hear more than one teacher say that women aren’t made for engineering”. “At work, many are constantly testing you, waiting for you to make a mistake”. These are some of the interactions they regard as discriminatory and that took place at their work or university environment. This rising awareness indicates that promoting egalitarian ecosystems helps denature the inequality that pervades the closest domestic, cultural, social and educational environments.
The challenge of coming up with work dynamics that favour gender equality must go hand in hand with a more attentive and less naïve outlook on the practices and processes that reproduce conditions of inequality. It is essential to foster environments within which the issue is brought to light and gender inequality can be discussed, if we mean to achieve meaningful and sustainable change.