This month’s Inclusivity Friday blog comes from Lois Gray, who is the Academic Lead Developer (Engineering) and a Lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands.
You may wonder why I am writing about unconscious gender bias, which, by its very definition, is resistant to conscious transformation. However, I believe we must force mindfulness, to address the gender data gap, which Criado-Perez (2019) notes harms women, sometimes fatally. From ill-fitting stab vests to injurious car seatbelts, leaky filtering masks, man-sized artificial hearts, and so on, the patriarchy of the engineering design profession is proven to disadvantage women. It is well known that the UK needs more engineers to help solve climate-change problems – Engineering UK (2018: 3) estimates up to 59000 more annually – and that women represent a 51% potential workforce, but what is less publicised is that UK women control or influence 67% of consumer purchases (Gotts 2017). Yet only 14.5% are engineers (ONS 2020). Even more damning, McBride-Wright’s 2019 survey proved that engineering is still perceived as having a masculine culture, undoubtedly contributing to the fact that in 2018-19 (Engineering UK 2020: 5) only 21% of engineering undergraduate entrants were female.
My working life has been split equally between academia and industry, and I have rarely encountered explicit discrimination – I guess batteries and radars are not inherently gender specific. However, unconscious bias is evident even in these products, with man-portable weight specifications (30 kg!), uncomfortable personal protective equipment, heavy test equipment stored on high shelves, long reach required for adjustments, and many more subtle, but inconveniencing niggles. It is, thus, likely that a more gender-balanced design team may have resulted in better serviceable products. Marçal (2021) illustrates a familiar, contemporary example, the electric car. In the early 1900s this fell out of favour for being too feminine and it was only after Dorothée Pullinger specifically adapted the petrol car for women that the advantages of designing for gender diversity began to be appreciated. Of course, the previously ‘girly’ electric vehicle is now an androgynous game-changer in the race to achieve Net Zero.
Since Watson (2021: 305) notes that schoolgirls prefer to choose careers where they see themselves as being valued, not just tolerated, the persistent perception that engineering is not a female-friendly environment needs to change. So what can be done? The oft-cited mantra that resolution requires the promotion of female role models, takes little cognisance of the fact that the lack of role models is a self-perpetuating conundrum. Exclusively female opportunities are proven to be effective, but risk advocating illegal, positive discrimination, and alienating male allies (Gray 2021). Perhaps the numerous studies into femininity, including those by Smith et al (2018), the University of Zurich (2017), and Engineering UK (2018), offer alternative solutions. These highlight that women are drawn to occupations which are pro-social, creative, collaborative, and inclusive. Co-incidentally, the fourth industrial revolution, in which robots are increasingly appropriating traditional engineering jobs, is calling for this very skill set (Skills Development Scotland 2018).
My own teaching experience confirms that, regardless of gender, practical, or technical capability, the most successful alumni are those who strongly evidence these “Graduate Attributes” (University of the Highlands and Islands 2021). Thus, I am inclined to follow Pears’ (2021) advice to reject conventional undergraduate engineering education in favour of project-based, ill-structured problem-solving pedagogies, which specifically encourage innovation and teamwork. By careful choice of projects and teams, it is possible to build multi-modal assessments which focus equally on ergonomic and functional aspects of design, thus encouraging creativity, collaboration and pro-social bias – the “feminine” attributes. This establishes a win-win situation where students are rewarded for their inherent qualities but also develop, and are assessed on, their integrated, authentic skills and understanding of sociological requirements and constraints. Evidence from work with my own students supports this hypothesis, where small group projects, such as improving pulsimeters for dark-skin accuracy, have measurably increased student awareness of design for equality, and the need to respect diverse opinions (Gray 2021).
It is no coincidence that International Women’s Day 2022 has a “break the bias” theme. Without the eradication of bias, engineering product design will remain constrained and restrained by the ideas of the privileged, white male, to the detriment of all society. We cannot allow historical attitudes and change resistance to discourage us from “actively calling out gender bias” (IWD 2021). Within all our university programmes, not just engineering, we must approach the improvement of gender equality in new and creative ways (Jester 2021), however small and irrelevant these improvements may seem.
Blair, W. (2021) ‘Aiming for Awesome: improving perceptions of engineering amongst girls through a digital, STEAM based intervention’. In Gender equality and representation within and beyond the University of the Highlands and Islands. ed. By Walker, A. Inverness: University of the Highlands and Islands
Criado-Perez, C. (2019) Invisible Women. 1st edn. London, UK: Vintage Digital
Engineering UK (2018) Gender Disparity in Engineering. London, UK: Engineering UK
Engineering UK (2020) Educational Pathways into Engineering. London, UK: Engineering UK
Gotts, J. (2017) Women Consumer Power [online]. Available from http://www.genanalytics.co.uk/knowledge/women-consumer-power/ [30/11/2021]
Gray, L. (2021) ‘Attracting women into engineering – a personal reflection’. In Gender equality and representation within and beyond the University of the Highlands and Islands. ed. by Walker, A. Inverness: University of the Highlands and Islands
–. (2021) ‘Group Activity 1: Pulsimeter Mini-Project’. In GEARING-ROLES Handbook. Oxford: Oxford Brookes University
IWD (2021) IWD 2022 campaign theme: #BreakTheBias [online]. Available from https://www.internationalwomensday.com/2022Theme [7/12/2021]
Jester, N. (2021) Foreword. In Gender equality and representation within and beyond the University of the Highlands and Islands. ed. by Walker, A. Inverness: University of the Highlands and Islands
McBride-Wright, M. (2019) Masculinity in Engineering: A first-of-its kind survey of perceptions in engineering culture. London: EqualEngineers
ONS (2020) Labour Force Survey Q3. London, UK: UK Government
Skills Development Scotland (2018) Skills 4.0: A skills model to drive Scotland’s future. Edinburgh: Skills Development Scotland
Smith, D., Rosenstein, J., and Nikolov, M. (2018) ‘The Different Words We Use to Describe Male and Female Leaders’ Harvard Business Review [online]. Available from <https://hbr.org/2018/05/the-different-words-we-use-to-describe-male-and-female-leaders> [1 December 2021]
University of the Highlands and Islands (2021) Graduate Attributes [online]. Available from https://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/learning-and-teaching-academy/innovation/graduate-attributes/ [03/12/2021]
University of Zurich (2017) The female brain reacts more strongly to prosocial behavior than the male brain, study finds. Rockville, USA: Science Daily