Education, careers and gender: it’s not just women who miss out

In his article, Pro-Vice Chancellor Paul White argues that whilst the Women in Engineering initiative is breaking down the gender barrier for the engineering discipline, it is not the only academic area that is affected by gender assumptions. He highlights subjects which are seen as the preserve of women and suggests that we should be doing more to tackle social gendering, which prevents both men and women entering professions they can thrive in. 



I was recently asked when our University had first graduated women. The assumption was that we had not allowed women to graduate until several decades after we had first awarded degrees to men.  Wrong.  Sheffield has awarded its full range of qualifications to both women and men right from its receipt of a royal charter in 1905 – and even before then in the constituent colleges from which it emerged.  How unlike Cambridge, which didn’t allow women to graduate until after the Second World War.

“We clearly need to counter the ‘expectation’ that an engineer or a computer scientist will be male – but we also need to counter the ‘expectation’ that a speech therapist or a social worker will be female.”
Last July I sat on the front row of the platform through 11 degree ceremonies involving students from all faculties. It is always a very interesting experience during which I notice the considerable differences between the graduates from different departments.
One thing that strikes me every year is the gender imbalance in graduates.  This year such observations sent me to the student record to see exactly what the balance between male and female graduates was in certain degree programmes.  Female percentages for the bigger courses in the Faculty of Engineering were 26%, 25%, 16%, 14%, 11% and 9%; clearly there are major gender disparities amongst the student body in the faculty.

Other groups of graduates I observed during that week in July produced percentages such as 24%, 21%, 11%, 9% and even as low as 3%. These figures are even lower than those I have just cited for substantial programmes in Civil Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Aerospace.  But read the first sentence of this paragraph again.  What I didn’t say was that these percentages were of MALE students in degree programmes that are hugely dominated by women.

The programmes I’ve just cited are the BA in Modern Languages (24%), the BMedSci in Orthoptics (21%), the BMedSci in Speech Science (11%), the BA in Social Work (9%) and the BSc in Human Communication Sciences (3%).  Indeed, this year there was a male graduate in the last of those programmes – in many years the group is entirely female.   We might note that I have just cited examples of female-dominated graduating groups in three faculties outside Engineering.

I hugely applaud the Women in Engineering initiative.  But I think we have a wider set of gender issues to tackle across the university – the taken-for-granted assumptions that certain disciplines and professions are the preserve of one sex.  We clearly need to counter the ‘expectation’ that an engineer or a computer scientist will be male – but we also need to counter the ‘expectation’ that a speech therapist or a social worker will be female.  I’m not sure that the other faculties in the university are taking this gender issue as seriously as Engineering.  If there are initiatives to get males to think more favourably of studying languages or Orthoptics I’m not aware of them.
I wonder how many women studying in other faculties are not fulfilling their true potential by not studying engineering.  But equally, I wonder how many men studying engineering might actually have been better suited in what is a socially ‘feminised’ discipline in the Faculties of Medicine, Dentistry and Health, or in Social Sciences.  Perhaps the University should be sending mixed outreach teams into schools both to try and encourage female students to take the A Level combinations to aim for studying engineering at university AND to encourage males to look to fulfilling careers in languages or in what are sometimes labelled as the ‘caring professions’.  And if we could persuade males to enter the latter we might actually create conditions where women do not see these as their natural destiny and look more favourably on Engineering and the physical sciences where they are also under-represented.
But I have one other thought from looking at the student graduation data.  In some of those engineering programmes I cited earlier there was a distinctive feature amongst the few women who crossed the stage.  They were much more likely to be overseas students than was true for the programme as a whole.  Why is it that women from distant countries seem more willing to study Engineering than women from the UK?  I’ll leave that question for discussion and comment.

Paul writes his own personal blog at the university

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