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This is what we can do to break the gender stereotype in hardcore engineering

Updated: Jan 28, 2020

Women spend more time than men on social integration, score higher in teamwork and empathy, and are more adaptive to change. Does not this make women the preferred engineers of the future? And if so, what can we do to make this happen?

I am far from being an expert in gender diversity. But a prize award ceremony at our faculty by the International Aviation Women Association (IAWA) in August, a sudden drop in female freshman students at my Faculty in September 2017, a role in the GEDC Airbus Diversity Award session at Niagara Falls in October, and the challenge we have set ourselves the goal in October to triple the female influx by 2025, have got me thinking.

Why so few?

Women are under-represented in many fields of engineering.The stereotype that links masculinity with mechanical, civil, electrical and aerospace engineering is prevalent and difficult to overcome. Could it be the way these disciplines have portrayed themselves? For too long they have presented themselves as fields that recruit the best brains in mathematics and sciences and shape them into problem solvers who wear a hard hat and work on-site. For too long they forget to tell that engineers not only solve cut-and-dried problems but also define and analyse problems, design creative solutions for ambiguous problems, and use 3D design, analysis, simulation and intelligence software! That’s how they build skyscrapers, design modern airplanes and invent things that improve and save people’s lives.

We forget to emphasise that engineering is a social activity and shifts towards more contact and more empathy with customers and colleagues. Any new technology, system, building or infrastructure we see in our daily world is the work of a team of engineers. Rather than thinking of engineering capabilities as gender-related, engineering is very much person-related. Since women spend more time than men on social integration, score higher in teamwork and empathy, and are more adaptive to change, could not this make women the preferred engineers of the future?

Women in a Man’s World, but not everywhere

Photo: TU Delft

Many countries in Europe have a low percentage of female engineering professionals. Engineering industry has earned itself a reputation of being a male bastion and seems to forget that no technology will work optimally if fifty percent of the people from the world, the women, are excluded.

The absolute numbers and the ranking of countries depend on which research and statistics we take as a reference. The percentage of female employees in the engineering middle and upper segment in the Netherlands seems to be lower than anywhere else in Europe: with 18 % women in engineering, the Netherlands seems to be at the very bottom. The figures are quite different when we look at Germany and Belgium at about 25-30%,  and Eastern Europe is leading the field at 35 to 40% with Bulgaria as the winner with 41 % female employees (ref. Dutch magazine De Ingenieur April 2015). Outside Europe the gap closes even further as China, India, Jordan, Malaysia edge upwards to fifty per cent. And in Iran even seventy per cent of science and engineering students are female! These data show large disparities from country to country, and the forces at play are very complex and multidimensional.

The low figures of female employment in the Netherlands not only apply to the engineering sector. The January 2018 report (in Dutch)  “Werken aan de Start, Jonge vrouwen en mannen op de arbeidsmarkt” by the Netherlands Institute of Social Research reads, that nowhere else in Europe young women work so few hours than in the Netherlands, and nowhere else the difference between men and women is so large. In the Netherlands many women chose for sectors that easily accommodate parttime jobs. Particularly in the health sector parttime jobs are favourite and “normal”, in the engineering sector they are not.

Lack of role models

One of the barriers to young women is that they don’t see more than a handful of females who are doing traditionally “male” jobs in the engineering and technology sector. It makes them assume that such roles are more or less closed to them. Aspirant female students who think about a study in engineering sciences look at faculty and find mainly grey-haired men. Also in my Faculty of Aerospace Engineering the gender profile is unbalanced. Eighty-seven per cent of the permanent scientific staff (full, associate, assistant professors) at my faculty is male, not necessarily all bold or grey-haired. Only one of the seven-member Management Team is a woman. Only fourteen per cent of the Bachelor and twelve per cent of the Master student population is female (ref. TU Delft Facts and Figures/Staff 2016).

The world needs more women in engineering

To solve the world’s problems and come up with innovative ideas we need a diverse set of minds. The largest pool of under-utilised talent is the women. They would make great engineers, but why do so many choose non-engineering careers? I believe it’s not only the Man’s World. It’s also the image of the engineering disciplines we stick to the mind of the students. Millennial students in general, and young women in particular, want to make a difference in the world, want to help people and add value. Engineering is exactly doing that: making life better and a safer place, but we often forget to mention. My first hit on today’s TU Delft website describes in 500 words the origami’ lattices with nano-scale surface ornaments, and mentions, hidden in the text in just five words, that it “can be used in medical implants”. It is one out of tons of examples that in research universities, pride in engineering sciences stands fiercely for its technology, not for its purpose.

Gender stereotypes

There is no valid argument why men and women would have different reasons for enrolling in engineering. Many of my students mention they are good at maths and science in their pre-university education and want good employability, interesting career paths with well-paid professional opportunities. Women, more often than men, add that they want to become socially responsible engineers. They do not want to become a nerdy engineer but solve major problems, make a difference in people’s lives. They are more likely than their male counterparts, interested in engineering work that is “socially conscious”, i.e. specialisations such as environmental or biomedical, extraterrestrial life search, instead of the hard electrical, civil or aerospace engineering.

Another argument that plays a role is that engineering students quickly find out that collaboration and teamwork constitute a core component of being an engineer. For quite some female engineering students the first encounter with this teamwork is influenced by gender stereotypical behaviour by their peers. Female students like team work, but too often they are relegated to doing more routine work or reporting activities, and are excluded by the males from the “real” engineering work.

HFMtalentindex and the Royal Dutch Institute for Engineering: “For women to thrive and fully utilise these (learning) agilities, they must be in teams that contain other women” and “….when a woman is in a team containing only men, the opportunities to interact together, to share ideas, and to learn from each other is quite limited”. Women want freedom and have the opportunity to be surrounded by others and the ability to ask others for help.

I hear and read stories that also in internships and later in the the workplace women are more often than men coupled with less challenging projects and confronted with sexism and everyday harassment, often in isolation from supportive chiefs or colleagues. Such perspectives easily lead female students to revisit their ambitions. They begin to question whether engineering is what they really want to do. The engineering sector is moving, and I know for instance the European Airbus multinational is taking (gender) diversity very seriously. But I forecast that also in the coming decade female students and engineers will need perseverance not to let the stereotypes distract them. In many companies they still have to be better than their male colleagues to achieve the same career opportunities.

Talking differently about engineering will attract different people

Women feel, more than men, attracted to “purpose”. Developing highly advanced instruments, optimising product or system designs, doing research without the user or the application in mind, do not have the visible impact on society. So I make a plea to add a mindset of societal and industrial engagement to the engineering curricula, by bringing environment and societal, economic and political contexts into the classroom, much more than we are used to. Incorporating such mindset requires a major mind-shift of the staff but will lead to higher student engagement and educate better engineers. More women will feel attracted. Look at the better gender balance in the fields of life sciences, architecture, planetary exploration, biotechnology and the search for extraterrestrial life. In these fields it is the societal impact that makes the difference. The TU Delft 2018 corporate movie  “You are everywhere in my life” on YouTube is one of the few portraits that shows very well what the role of engineering in everybody’s life is.

In our outreach and informative sessions for prospective students, we have to reframe engineering in a more purposeful and creative profession that resonates better with women’s interest. We have to connect it, in my discipline, more tightly to the great challenges in aeronautics and spaceflight. Secondly we should change the profile of engineering into a more creative and problem-solving profession. I hear people say that the addition of arts to engineering education could add the necessary motivation of creativity and attract more female students.  So, should not we empower the female students in the makerspaces and innovation factories on campus where engineering specialists, customers, users and other stakeholders join together?

 “We will attract more female students if we let them use engineering to solve real-world challenges, where they learn how their creativity and engineering skills can make a real difference”

Are females the engineers for the future?

The conclusion in the study about learning agility of HFMtalentindex reads “(…) women are the ideal candidate to hire (…).” Women are stronger than men in people agility (social integration, openness to people) and self-awareness (knowing your own strengths and weaknesses). The report reads “This is an ideal combination, since previous research found that those who have this profile have the greatest development change over time (…) show a greater improvement in their current function than those who don’t”. “Female engineers also score higher than their male counterparts in almost all the competencies, meaning they have more potential than male engineers.” If we add these insights to the expectations that the developments in robotics and artificial intelligence will create new jobs that require human aspects and human intervention, it’s clear that the Fourth Industrial Revolution forces us to rewire the DNA of engineering teams.

Solving complex problems needs creativity, and creativity demands a diversity of view points. Without the input from women, engineers have only access to half the total pool of creativity, which limits the applicability of solutions they reach. According to a study by McKinsey, the most gender-diverse companies are fifteen per cent more likely to outperform financially than the least gender-diverse. Diversity in workforce is good for business. It offers a broader range of skills and perspectives and encourages better performance and behaviour.

It is not only half of the creativity we miss. I wonder how companies who want to grow and understand trends and discover new market niches can be successful without understanding and without having the skills to empathise with the female perspectives?

Opportunities for women with a career break

For engineering business as well as universities, attracting women who have taken a career break, may help to enlarge the number of females in senior or leadership roles. It is probably a quicker way to find candidates with experience by selecting them from a highly motivated pool who have difficulty in getting back in the world of work. It is also much quicker and cheaper to upskill a  returner in comparison to starting with a young graduate who usually misses many professional skills of teamwork or project management.

Lack of confidence causes women change their minds

Female engineering students perform equally or better than men. But they are more likely than men to leave the study or switch to a more social or societal oriented study. They switch more than men because they don’t believe their skills are good enough or don’t feel like they fit in engineering. Such lack of confidence is an important factor when competing with men, for instance in selective admissions to an engineering programme or a job.

Impact of selective admission

My Faculty has to do much better in gender diversity and we have therefore set ourselves the goal of thirty per cent female students influx in 2025. It means an annual rise of sixteen per cent in female student intake per year, for the next eight years in a row… I call that a challenge. It is the reaction to many years of slow but steady rise and a sudden decline from sixteen to nine per cent of female influx in 2017. More women and an inclusive culture will enhance the effectiveness of our educational programmes. But we have to understand that instilling such inclusive culture in the university will be a challenge.

Since 2017 we as a Faculty have entered the era of selective admission of prospective Bachelor students and are aware that we run risks of exclusion due to a bias in the criteria or process for admission. We select students who are expected to have the highest ability and potential to succeed in our Bachelor programme. Diversity in gender, race, religion, social background, talent or any other contextual factor are not part of our admission criteria. The emphasis of our selection process is on high-achieving single-minded academic applicants. The lack of confidence by women I addressed in the above, possibly prevents more female than male students from applying to our programme, or completing the admission process, and if it does, we have to find out how to mitigate.

The GEDC – Airbus Diversity Award

The GEDC – Airbus Diversity Award ceremony. From left to right: Aldert Kamp, Rachel Schroeder, Alex Bannigan – finalist, Qiao Sun – finalist, Taiwo Tejumola – recipient of GEDC Airbus Diversity Award 2017)

Diversity and Inclusiveness were among the most popular words at the Global Engineering Deans Council conference at Niagara Falls in October 2017. Diversity is the prime condition for a reflective community and a driver for innovation and growth. Increasingly sectors and countries recognise the value of diversity and inclusiveness.

Together with Rachel Schroeder, Head of Employment Marketing, Airbus, I hosted an interactive panel on “Diversity in Engineering” where we discussed a number of provocative statements with the deans, where the central question was “Whose responsibility is it to beat the gender bias in engineering?”

  1. Engineering universities will only prioritize diversity and inclusiveness when its benefits are evidence-based.

  2. Positive discrimination (such as tailored admission standards, special scholarships) will boost diversity at university level.

  3. Only when the higher management has the courage to set targets and give incentives for diversity and inclusiveness, the organisation will adopt it.

AI and inclusiveness

I will not elaborate on the discussion, but an unexpected topic that popped up was about the rise of Artificial Intelligence and its potential impact on inclusiveness. Algorithms should be in principle “colour-blind” and thus not discriminate on gender, race, etcetera. But actually nobody knows  in detail how the many complex algorithms in AI will sort and sift data. It raised the question whether or not learning machines will be capable to learn inclusively, or unintentionally reinforce discrimination? It is one more reason why we need more women in engineering. Without their thinking the algorithms in artificial intelligence and robotics may be poor and have conscious or unconscious male bias.

“The article, issued in the Irish Times on 24 December 2018 “Concerns over huge gender gap in artificial intelligence workforce” is a bad sign. Women account for just 22% of the workforce in Artificial Intelligence: the gender talent gap in this sector is three times larger than in other industries. “This gender bias will thus enter the coding process, leading to real-world implications”, the article reads.


Portraying a different image of our curricula, connecting engineering more to society, defeating sexual harassment, using more female role models in engineering, teaming women in project education, adding a mindset of societal and industrial relevance to engineering programmes, empowering especially women in makerspaces, analysing the impact of selective admission processes. The broad spectrum of topics in my post may give the impression I have been scattering away at random about gender diversity. They came to my mind when I started thinking about improving gender diversity at my Faculty.

Diversity and gender equality are hot items. In the five days after publishing this blogpost, I hit upon the recent comprehensive study by Microsoft “Why don’t European girls like science or technology?” and a report of the World Economic Forum “Why 2018 must be the year for women to thrive“. Let’s make time to make it work! We have a long way to go before we will achieve an equal spread of women and men working in the engineering sector. But when men learn about gender inequality at work? They fight it.

“If you want your company to be successful; if you want your company to operate with wisdom, with care, then women are the best”. (Quote Jack Ma, Executive Chairman Alibaba, at World Economic Conference in Davos 24 January 2018)



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