Gender disparities in engineering may be the result of a larger cultural issue, but relieving the impact on students isn’t out of University’s hands.
A feature published in The Journal last week showed that for some female engineering students in the faculty’s least gender-balanced discipline — electrical and computing engineering (ECE) — they aren’t just the statistical minority, but also face sexism at the hands of professors and peers alike.
It’s difficult to arrive at the root cause of an issue that is so ongoing and complex. It could be a catch-22 — the idea of being one of a handful of girls in the program deterring prospective female students, only further perpetuating the disparity.
Part of the cause may also be traced back to the lack of female representation in positions of authority within the program.
Whatever the root cause, it’s clear the issue is bigger than Queen’s — the lack of women in ECE mirrors a culture that identifies STEM fields with maleness and often other fields with femininity.
It’s useful to consider another example, such as the Faculty of Nursing. Nursing also has a large gender disparity, a majority of the students being female — perhaps because nursing is identified as a “caring” field and thus labeled as typically feminine.
The flipped scenario may allow for those unable to find fault in the lack of women in ECE to put it into perspective. By looking at both sides of gender disparity, a key question emerges — why and how is gender a marker of someone’s ability to be in a certain field of study?
Although the reasons for the disparity may differ between ECE and nursing, the answer isn’t in adding more female or male bodies to classrooms, because much of the statistical issue stems from an ongoing cultural problem.
A cultural issue may seem out of the scope of University administration, but the solution of making learning and course content more inclusive is well within faculty’s reach. In this way, Queen’s has a vital role to play in ensuring students feel welcome before arriving as well as once they get here.
There are two specific areas that deserve the university’s focus: prospective students observing gender-disparate disciplines as a potential options, and students currently studying in environments where they are a minority.
In the case of ECE, whether done through establishing more scholarships and grants for women in STEM or looking more closely at how engineering professors can cultivate a more welcoming space for female students, Queen’s can do more than what it’s currently doing.
It’s easy to shift the blame for discrepancies onto women choosing fields other than STEM, but it’s important to remember that the problem isn’t making a different choice, it’s when someone’s gender discourages them from having a choice at all.
The question worth asking is why a system exists that inhibits someone’s right to choose by telling students what field they’re supposed to be passionate about.
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