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Schools Can Help, But Not Fix Gender Inequality

Schools Can Help, But Not Fix Gender Inequality

Gender inequality in mechanical engineering is particularly bleak. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that women represent just 8.7% of mechanical engineers employed in the United States. This is one of the lowest percentages among engineering disciplines.
Increasing that number will not be easy and will not happen overnight. Cornell University sociologists, in a recently released study, found that increasing the percentage of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) college majors would reduce, but not completely resolve gender inequality in STEM fields.
“Integrating fields of study is an important mechanism for addressing gender inequality in the labor market, especially in STEM fields. But even if you do that, you still have a long way to go to integrate the labor market among college graduates,” said Haowen Zheng, a doctoral student and lead author of “How Gender Segregation in Higher Education Contributes to Gender Segregation in the U.S. Labor Market.”
The comprehensive report, published in the April 2023 issue of the journal Demography, concludes that only about one-third of gender segregation among college-educated workers is related to their undergraduate degrees. The rest is attributable to workplace factors.
Michelle DeCarlo, an associate partner of the 400-person MEP firm Jaros, Baum & Bolles (JB&B), agrees that academia can only do so much. “Women need to enter the workforce in an environment that is inclusive, safe, supportive, and welcoming,” DeCarlo said. “In our firm, we’ve made it everyone’s responsibility to do this, not just HR or leadership. Without this, meaningful change will not happen across the industry.” 
In 2018, DeCarlo founded JB&B’s Women’s Initiative. Its mission is to position women as leaders inside and outside the firm, promote the retention of women through leadership and professional development, and bring women and men to a mutual understanding of equity.
“It can’t be the sole responsibility of educators or even the women who practice engineering to change the industry,” said DeCarlo, whose New York City-based firm was established over 100 years ago. “Meaningful change needs to come from the leadership of engineering firms and the social environment of each sub-industry. Mentoring, and more importantly, sponsoring promising women in the field as they start and progress through their careers will help elevate them into positions of leadership.”
The Cornell report doesn’t specifically address gender inequality in leadership, but the dearth of women in board rooms and executive office suites is a significant deterrent to overall gender equity, said leadership coach and corporate governance expert Kathryn Sprankle.
“You can’t fix everything overnight, but if company leaders really see this as a problem to fix, then put your money where your mouth is,” said Sprankle, who has consulted with engineering firms for more than 30 years and served on several corporate boards. “You need to have women in principal roles in the company. You need to identify women as future leaders. Mentor them, recruit them. A lot of company leaders talk about it, but it’s taking too long for them to actually do something about it.”
What else can the mechanical engineering profession do to reduce gender inequity?
Form an advocacy group.
DeCarlo launched JB&B’s Women’s Initiative after researching how other industry firms created and operated similar groups. Upon her return from maternity leave in 2018, she crafted a one-page proposal that explained the need for the group, provided statistics about the status of women inside and outside JB&B, and detailed potential activities and a budget. The partners approved her request on the spot.
Highlight role models.
Female students are more likely to pursue a mechanical engineering career and aspire to become leaders in the field if they have role models. Companies with women in key positions should aggressively promote their achievements to inspire others to follow.
Bolster confidence in women.
Women cannot passively wait for the workplace to change. In mentoring and training programs, the message needs to resonate that everyone, regardless of gender, race or any other personal status, has a place in the company and an equal right to speak their mind and be treated respectfully.
Foster greater understanding in men.
Successfully combatting gender inequity requires a sincere company-wide effort to address cultural and operational structures that tip the scales against women. With men dominating the field, they often―though not always―drive and perpetuate gender inequity, whether they recognize it or not. “We need to educate people, to raise awareness about unconscious bias and stereotyping that are institutionalized in a lot of companies,” Sprankle said.
Ensure equal pay and fair policies.
Gender inequity involves more than the ratio of women to men in a company; it is also reflected in pay disparity and other unfair practices and policies. One approach is to conduct a compensation survey to ensure that women and men with the same qualifications and performing the same work receive the same compensation. DeCarlo says that JB&B uses a fair, transparent review system with detailed job descriptions to mitigate any reviewer internal bias.
“Having more women represented in engineering will help more women enter the field, both in school and in their career,” DeCarlo said. “To make women want to stay in the industry, leaders also need to be models of inclusionary behavior and make changes in their organizations. Keeping women in the industry will influence future generations of women to enter the field and stay as well.”
Jerry Guerra is an independent writer in Lynnfield, Mass.

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