Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering

A one pager from Colorado University College of Engineering & Applied Sciences that dispels myths and promotes positive messages to increase adults and children’s understanding of what engineering is and what engineers do. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Engineering developed and tested messages to promote a more positive image of engineering.

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Extraordinary Women Engineers

The Extraordinary Women Engineers Project (EWEP) is a national project to encourage girls to consider pursuing engineering. This study used focus groups and online surveys to gauge high school girls level of interest in engineering and awareness of engineering careers, as well as exploring the current and potential messaging used to increase enrollment with this demographic. They discovered that high school girls don’t feel that engineering is “for them” and perceive engineering as a “man’s profession”. They note that girls want their jobs to be rewarding; girls want to enjoy their jobs, have a good working environment, make a difference, have a good salary and career flexibility. Their findings on influencers echo ours – career influencers too often aren’t aware of how to guide girls towards engineering. Rather than attracting girls to “the challenge” of engineering, we need to connect engineering with the aforementioned elements that are important to teens.

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Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

Generation Stem is a comprehensive white paper prepared by the Girl Scout Research Institute. The report stresses that girls are indeed interested in STEM subjects, but still struggle with gender barriers. The report also provides details on the STEM interest and abilities of African American and Hispanic girls, noting that the majority have high interest, high levels of confidence and a strong work ethic, but have less support, exposure and lower academic achievement than Caucasian girls. The report focuses on girls relationship with STEM, but emphasizes that engineering, in particular, has an image problem with girls, noting that “Girls may identify more with the process of becoming an engineer than with the idea or label of being an engineer when they grow up.”

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A Global Engineer for the Global Community:

According to Chan & Fishbein, the general public has the tendency to define engineering by a limited set of required skills – specifically, math and science. However Engineers Without Borders (EWB) have worked to counteract these stereotypes through their emphasis on the “Global Engineer,” a modern engineer with superior communication and interdisciplinary skills, a well-developed sense of social responsibility and ethics and an entrepreneurial mindset. In 2008, the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board’s changed their accreditation criteria to reflect the definition put forth by EWB. Engineering programs in universities across Canada must now provide courses that prepare their students to work in teams, communicate effectively, think ethically and sustainably, engage in entrepreneurial action and embrace lifelong learning. WEMADEIT has embraced the EWB’s definition of the Global Engineer; based on our research, we feel that this is a more nuanced definition of engineering that will be more appealing to teen girls.

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AAUW White Paper. Why So Few?: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

This AAUW report proposes that success in STEM subjects is relatively equal in girls and boys, suggesting that our focus should be instead on increasing girls’ exposure to engineering. This report provides specific suggestions for changing the mindset of female students that will be useful to parents, teachers, professors and administrators. These include suggestions on: increasing spatial skills; educating female student on stereotype threat; helping girls understanding their tendency to self-assess more harshly than boys; and an educational mindset theory that has proven most effective in helping girls continue to succeed in STEM.

READ: AAUW White Paper. Why So Few?: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

Intending to stay: Images of scientists, attitudes toward women, and gender as influences on persistence among science and engineering majors

Exposure to positive images of scientists and engineers improves the odds of students having high degree and career aspirations, as well as a higher commitment to career. Further, positive attitudes toward gender and racial equality, as well as positive classroom experiences, also improved the odds of students’ having high degree aspirations. The article also concludes that gender may be a more important factor in explaining why some students leave their science and engineering majors than in explaining why others stay.

Download: Intending to Stay- images of scientists, attitudes toward women, and gender as influences on persistence among science and engineering majors


College students, especially women, overwhelmingly demonstrate negativity toward math and science. This paper suggests that women who more heavily associate math with male stereotypes tend to respond to math more negatively. Because there is a disconnect between the way women see themselves (feminine) and the way they see math (not-feminine), even those who select math-intensive majors tend to have a hard time associating themselves with math.

Download: Math = Male, Me = Female, Therefore..

Do Internalized Feminine Norms Depress Girls’ STEM Attitudes & Participation?

This paper suggests that girls’ negative response to STEM is based on the beliefs and attitudes about femininity that they have internalized.

By the time they hit middle school, girls seem to believe that there is a disconnect between femininity and skill in math. Girls feel that they must either opt out of femininity or opt out of STEM. In essence, you can’t be both feminine and good at math – the two are mutually incompatible.

This paper proposes that rather than exclusively focusing on removing external barriers that keep girls from entering into STEM (i.e. increasing female role models in STEM or making pedagogy less ‘masculine’), we also need to focus on gaining a better understanding of girls’ internalization of feminine norms and how this affects female participation in STEM.

This article also echoes our beliefs, in suggesting that we need to pay more attention to how girls, as active agents, can choose to defy and change the MATH ≠ FEMINITY equation.

Download: Do Internalized Feminine Norms Depress Girls’ STEM attitudes and participation?