Why are there so few female mechanical engineers?

Female mechanical engineersI have to confess this question about female mechancial engineers hasn’t come to my mind until I recently watched a Society of Women Engineers (SWE) workshop, with the initiative to get women more involved in STEM fields. It never crossed my mind that it is still a challenge to get females into the workforce within STEM fields. This is my personal take on the question. I truly hope this topic will open a discussion, so we learn more and eventually can come up with consistent solutions to tackle this issue.

I’m from Morocco where the first university ever was built by a woman. I come from a very average middle-class family (my dad is a bank employee, my mother a housewife) where education was of extreme importance. This is to the extent of my parents giving up everything to ensure their children would get the best education available. I come from a system where the most prestigious schools of Engineering are still public, and where I only had to pay ~120$ for dorm, canteen and tuition fees. After five years of grueling studies, I earned my state Engineering diploma.

I graduated in a time where a tough economy didn’t prevent me from finding employment in less than two months. That is all to say; I wasn’t born with a fortune, I wasn’t raised in a place where education didn’t matter, and I didn’t face the ordeal of student loans. Thankfully avoiding the dying economy of many other places in the world, this is the experience of several lucky girls from average middle-class families in Morocco.

In high-school, girls and boys are fairly equally represented. After two years of preparatory classes, there was still no significant disparity. However, by the time we reached the Engineering school, there were some 16 girls and 60 boys in the Mechanical Engineering department, and 4 girls and 20 boys in my major, Mechanical Systems Design. I wasn’t baffled by the significant decrease or the presence of few of my gender, it was only when SWE was promoting women’s involvement in the STEM practices did I wonder about it.

When it was my time to counsel and advise future engineering students, I faced many boys excited at the perspective of being Mechanical Engineers and very few girls interested in the field. I think to this day, I only had dealings with two girls who were eagerly excited and passionate about the field. But one ended up following Industrial Engineering. The single victory was in the other one who followed a mechatronics track and is now a Design Engineer working in analysis and simulation of automotive assemblies. I am so proud of her!

The student’s perspective on female mechanical engineers

Whenever I asked the girls the reason why they wouldn’t even consider Mechanical Engineering, the answers had the same baffling resonance:

I don’t want to handle machinery and get lubricants and grease all over me

I don’t want to deal with the workforce, which is mainly men in their forties who will either hassle me or undermine me

It’s a man’s job, it doesn’t come “naturally” to women

It’s difficult, and I don’t want that much hassle and long hours for so little pay

I don’t want to work in an exclusively male environment

I don’t see any females in this field anyway, let alone holding key positions or taking key decisions or making key breakthroughs

All in all, the issue seems to be a circle of bias and misinformation perpetrating itself.

Experiences in the workforce

Fast forward to my current workplace. Within my department there 35 Design Engineers versed in analysis and Computer Aided Design (CAD). Six of these are women and most of them want out. Some are even taking Masters Degrees in Management as a way to escape the engineering field and get into management, where “real money and less technical difficulties are.” The weirdest thing, when I ask guys why there are so few female mechanical engineers, they themselves run out of words and try to regurgitate what they heard from female colleagues:

It has always been like this

It’s technically challenging and women aren’t interest because they feel they don’t have natural aptitude

How are they convinced? That doesn’t sound that much to me! Even my project manager tells me, having more women won’t be a convenience or an inconvenience as long as she performs decent work.

I worked in a field with only guys at the beginning of my career, in Morocco. When I asked why there weren’t more girls, the managers showed me their hiring sheets, where few girls applied and most didn’t qualify for the pre-requisites. When I offered up some female resumes, they were taken into consideration and I saw 2 female additions during my time there.

In my current job, the company has a goal for increasing the number of female employees. But, they face the same challenge of finding experienced engineers. As for hiring rookies, when they do, they tend to hire a female. All in all, getting hired is a matter of internships and proper skills to management. If it were a matter of gender, at least in Morocco, I would be among the first to be hit. To this day, I never faced someone who demeaned my capacities because of my gender or didn’t hire me because I was a female. When I speak to girls about my own experience, they either shrug it off as an exception, put it on the account of my passion, or simply state that mechanics is just too difficult and complicated to keep up with. One thing that has upset me the most; hearing a girl telling me she intends to have kids and not be stuck with a job where she has to constantly improve her skill sets.

For the Future

Hope is still out there as mentalities change and misconceptions are ironed out. Whenever I face aspiring engineering students, I take extra care to give them specific insight in into what mechanical engineering really is, and dispel the “oily rag” misconception as much as possible.

About: Khadija Ouajjani

Since 2012. Mechanical Design Engineer in the aeronautics industry. Mainly dealing with CAD, FEA, simulation and analysis for turbo-engines. Writing for EC since 2014. Garlic, Color Pencils, Open Systems, Coffee, Herbert, Final Fantasy VII, Writing, Tolkien, Mechanics, Deutsch, Nihongo, Herbs, Aïkido, Tea, Cinnamon, Motion, Friends.

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