Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

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Nature vs. Nurture: Female socialization and engineering

Society holds expectations of all of us. One major category of these expectations takes the form of gender stereotypes. Four basic categories of these stereotypes[1] include personality traits, domestic behaviors, occupations, and physical attributes. These groupings of stereotypes also contribute to society’s gender roles. While it is disputed whether or not gender roles are helpful, it is widely accepted that society does indeed have gender roles that men and women are expected to fulfill. Traditional female gender roles include those of caretaker, homemaker, mother, and other nurturing roles. These roles are promoted in the home, media, and relevant to this paper, in classroom and the workplace.

Engineering is a traditionally masculine field, and the education of engineers in the United States began as a military field (“civil” engineering was initially the first division of engineering separate from the military[2]). Engineering’s beginning as a military field solidified a culture of what essentially amounts to academic hazing in order to weed out the “weak” who would be unable to continue on in the field — a boot camp of sorts. While this culture might be easier to work within for men, who are socialized to live up to stereotypes of toughness (physical and mental) and take a more aggressive approach to life, it is more difficult for women socialized to adhere to a different set of stereotypes.

This, along with a large number of other factors, contributes to both a lack of women entering the field of engineering as well as a high attrition rate of female engineers. There have been a number of movements of late to attempt to fix these problems. Focusing on K-12 education and outreach, many of these approaches play into and perpetuate current stereotypes of women.[3] For example, a junior high website presented engineering careers like clothing options — “Try on a career” — operating under the assumption that girls will pay more attention to something if it’s branded as fashion.

Another website (Engineer Your Life, “a resource for high school girls”) seeks to redefine engineering by emphasizing communication and teamwork skills while downplaying math. One might argue (rightly so) that highlighting the collaborative side of engineering is an important step in changing the overall culture of engineering[4], what message does it send that this approach is almost exclusively used when trying to recruit women? This approach perpetuates the idea that women are better communicators than men and puts the onus of effective communication on women in the workplace.

This leads us to a few important questions: where should we, as educators interested in increasing female representation in engineering, meet young girls where they are? How might utilizing current stereotypes to draw girls into engineering backfire in the long term, and how much should we work to changing the socialization of all women in general?

Approaching Solutions

The issue of gender stereotypes as they interact with engineering is a complex, chicken-and-egg relationship. On one side, there is only so much change that can be made in society as a whole at a particular rate. However, perpetuating stereotypes of women’s role in society might ultimately cause different problems, if not more of them.

Realistically, societal change won’t happen overnight. However, there is notable evidence that working within the existing system to subvert norms in a workplace (or academic environment) is effective[5] — why not try this in a home environment? While Debbie Sterling argues that “[Girls] aren’t just interested in ‘what’ they’re building, they want to know ‘why’…Goldie’s stories relate to girls’ lives…Girls care about nurturing”, there’s a non-negligible chance that these differences are mainly socialized differences[6].

Parents can start incredibly early with their children by purchasing a variety of toys for their children regardless of what gender they are marketed to. By offering choices for their children, and not perpetuating norms about what toys are or aren’t ok to play with, we might see a change in how girls and boys play. This potential change in play (a meeting in the middle of driven by story vs. free building) could result in later changes of what types of careers girls and boys are attracted to, and hopefully helping out with gender balance of different careers in STEM (and more!).

Moving beyond early child development, a key turning point in girls’ interest in STEM is during middle and high school. A commonly held belief is that girls are both less interested and have lower aptitude for math. These stereotypes affect how minorities (in this case, specifically girls) perform in testing settings. By telling students in the classroom both that the teacher is using high standards (“signals that the criticism reflects standards rather than race”[7]) and that the evaluation leads the teacher(s) to the conclusion that the students can meet the standard, students under stereotype threat will be more motivated in the classroom, as opposed to feeling as though effort isn’t worth it.

Finally, what can we do as current college students? While we might not yet be in a direct parenting or teaching role, we can influence those around us. Likely we have family members with small children, and we can speak to those family members about choosing a variety of toys or even purchasing some well-selected ones as gifts. Kiwicrate[8] has a variety of subscription boxes that teach children ages 3–16+ about STEAM topics through hands-on topics, and have non-gendered projects. We can also conduct outreach to middle and high school students through programs such as Stanford’s SPLASH[9], and perform the abovementioned tactics in a teaching environment.

While we cannot completely undo years of socialization, there are some things we as students can do at the university level to help alleviate some of the symptoms. Research has shown that stereotypically gendered environments can cue women to express less interest in engineering fields (specifically CS)[10]. Creating environments that do not give specific cues towards a stereotypically “bro” or “engineering geek” culture could help women feel more welcome, and that their interests don’t preclude them from engineering. This type of “neutral environment” could have decorations relevant to the specific topic at hand (posters of documentaries about lab topics, mathematic visualizations of an interesting flow pattern such as Monterey Bay, contextual applications of the lab work such as bridges in a CEE workplace, etc.) rather than “feminine” or “masculine” decorations in common spaces, while personal desk space could be where people have the opportunity to showcase their unique interests (memes, Star Trek, fashion, etc.).

Gender socialization is a complex topic, and in an ideal world people would feel comfortable expressing their gender identity in whatever way makes them happiest, through dress, behavior, and career and lifestyle choices. Social progress takes time, though, and it will take many small steps to make lasting change towards this goal of freedom of expression.


[2] Prof. Karan Watson, 3.9.17, Stanford University lecture

[3] Amy Bix, 2.2.17, Stanford University lecture

[4] Trevelyan, J. 2010. Reconstructing engineering from practice.

[5] Meyerson, D. 2004. The Tempered Radicals: How employees push their companies — little by little — to be more socially responsible.


[7] Steele, C. M. 1999, August. Thin Ice: Stereotype Threat and Black College Students. Atlantic Monthly.



[10] Cheryan, S., Plaut, V.C., Davies, P.G., & Steele, C.M. 2009. Ambient belonging: How stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science.