Back in the 1950s most American women were neither encouraged nor permitted to work in a masculine career like engineering. And today, they are still underrepresented in STEM careers overall and in engineering specifically: Only 18.4 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering go to women, and women make up between 8 and 34 percent of the engineering workforce, depending on the subfield. A couple of years ago the researchers began to wonder: What could Americans learn about our approach to this enduring disparity by looking outside of our borders?
“The West has invested billions of dollars to address the issue of gender inequality in engineering and computing and has basically failed,” explains Washington State University adjunct associate engineering professor Ashley Ater Kranov, the investigator who came up with the initial research. “I started thinking maybe we’re asking the wrong questions—questions that won’t help us solve the problem.”
Ater Kranov, along with Jennifer DeBoer, an assistant professor of engineering education at Purdue University, recently came back from conducting research in Tunisia, Malaysia, and Jordan, all countries that they chose to study based on counterintuitive research that two other academics, Maria Charles and Karen Bradley, published in 2009 and then in a subsequent article in 2011.
Charles and Bradley, professors at the University of California at Santa Barbara and Western Washington University, respectively, had found that the STEM gender gap was smaller in countries like Iran, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and Oman than in the U.S.—in other words, men still made up the majority of STEM graduates overall, but there were more women by comparison. They even found a reverse gender gap in those same nations when it came to certain STEM measurements—for instance, women in Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan earned more than 50 percent of the total number of science degrees.
On the flip side, the Netherlands was the weakest country for women’s representation in science. A similar pattern held true for engineering: While the most male-dominated engineering programs were in developed countries like Japan, Switzerland, Germany, and the U.S., Indonesia boasted 48 percent female engineers.
In 2016, Academic researchers were given a $589,200 grant to try and understand why a significantly higher number of women in predominately Muslim countries choose to study engineering than in the USA.
The two-year research project is financed by the National Science Foundation with the aim of discovering the mechanisms that motivate women to pursue engineering in these countries.
According to engineering Professor Nehal Abu-Lail, researchers are interested in learning what Muslim countries have to offer and the experiences that women have there which make them more likely to persist in engineering and continue graduate education.
Abu-Lail is one of the researchers from Washington State University and the co-principal investigator of the project funded by the NSF. She also works as an associate professor in the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at WSU. Abu-Lail completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Jordan University of Science and Technology. All of her siblings (five girls and a boy) are engineers and so the research is a personal one: “Being from Jordan, I have a love for the discipline and want to retain the interest of my female students.”
This research is particularly puzzling in the case of Saudi Arabia, where women face socio-political and economic restrictions that mean men and women do not have the same rights and often opportunities - such as driving.
Julie Kmec, the other co-principal investigator in the study, explains that “in the United States, the government has spent a lot of money trying to develop programs and change curriculum to attract women to the field of engineering and science, with little success.”
Kmec wants to understand how Muslim countries have such a high female participation rate when there is no clear STEM campaign in place targeted at women. She says, “women’s engineering participation in predominantly Muslim countries is surprising for reasons beyond the absence of national STEM-focused efforts to increase representation.”
The research goal is to isolate what is creating the automatic assumption that engineering is a male subject (as is the case in the USA) and perhaps that’s part of the solution here - engineering isn’t a stereotypical male degree in these Muslim countries.
Dr. Jennifer DeBoer, Pricipal Investigator, Assistant Professor, Department of Engineering Education, Purdue University ([email protected])
Dr. Julie A. Kmec, Pricipal Investigator, Professor, Department of Sociology, Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor in Liberal Arts, Washington State University ([email protected])
Dr. Nehal Abu-Lail, co-Pricipal Investigator, Associate Professor and Associate Director, Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, Washington State University, ([email protected])
Dr. Ashley Ater Kranov, co-Pricipal Investigator, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, WSU & Interim Vice Dean of Electronic and Distance Learning and Interim Vice Dean of the College of Computing and Information Sciences at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia ([email protected])
Dr. Karen Bradley, co-Pricipal Investigator, Professor of Sociology, Western Washington University ([email protected])
NSF HRD Award #1561430. “Women’s Engineering Participation in the US: What can the US Learn from Women’s Decisions to Pursue Engineering in Diverse Cultural Contexts?” ($589,200) PI: J. Kmec, J. DeBoer, Co-PI: A. Ater-Kranov, N. Abu-Lail, K. Bradley.
NSF ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Award #0810927, Social Science Small grants program. “Women in Engineering: What the Muslim Paradox Can Teach us about the U.S.” ($7, 745) PI: J. Kmec, N. Abu-Lail.