“Why don’t more women enter the male-dominated profession of engineering? Some observers have speculated it may be due to the difficulties of balancing a demanding career with family life. Others have suggested that women may not rate their own technical skills highly enough.
However, a recent paper co-authored by MIT social scientist Susan Silbey, based on a four-year study of female engineering students, offers a different story. Contrary to the stereotype, the study finds, women are no more hesitant than men when it comes to mixing family and work. Moreover, their self-assessments of their math skills do not predict whether they will stick with engineering. Instead, the study finds, women feel less comfortable in engineering than men, and lack the “professional role confidence” that male engineers seem to acquire easily.
“The further they get from the classroom, the more women don’t like the experience,” says Silbey, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities and professor of sociology and anthropology at MIT. “They find there is too large a gap between the idea of being an engineer and the practice of it.” Women who have internships or jobs, she explains, find they “are too often relegated to ‘female’ roles of note-taker, organizer or manager,” and “don’t think they want to do this kind of work.””
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