Can a mechanical engineer become a scientist?

The real reasons for the low proportion of women in mechanical engineering

How MIT manages to inspire as many girls as boys to study mechanical engineering. And why that requires a strong will.

The direct line to professors and female staff seems to be important to female students. Here in the picture, MIT mechanical engineering professor Anette Hosoi talks to a student.

Photo: MIT / John Freidah

Hardly any other discipline fails so obviously in the attempt to inspire more women for itself as mechanical engineering. It is true that there are more and more women in the engineering profession. In Germany, only one in ten mechanical engineering students is a woman. The situation is similar in the USA: just 13% of Bachelor students in 2015 were women.

It can be very different: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has just announced that almost half of its mechanical engineering students are women. To be precise, it was recently 49.5% of all mechanical engineering students. And that's not a coincidence.

The interest in mechanical engineering is there

Three MIT scientists wanted to find out why the mechanical engineering institute is so unusually successful in recruiting female students. Kath Xu, Dawn Wendell and Andrea Walsh asked employees of the institute and the admissions office. Your study shows that the high proportion of female mechanical engineering students is the result of profound structural changes.

The study shows that there are at least as many young women who would be interested in studying mechanical engineering as there are young men. But they are dissuaded from their career aspirations in a variety of ways.

Counteract the stigma of male domination

One of the findings of the scientists was that gender inequality begins even before enrollment. That is why the licensing authority has started to polish up its own image and to address women directly. The popular opinion was clear: Mechanical engineering and the corresponding MIT institute were considered a male domain, although around the year 2000 a third of those enrolled there were women.

Staff used blogs to draw attention to the fact that public opinion was deceptive and that there were women on campus. Female students began to report on campus life and their learning content. In addition, employees increasingly invited young high school graduates to the Campus Weekend, a kind of open day at the university.

Provide an insight into the world of mechanical engineering

In addition, MIT has started a regular recruiting program. Schoolchildren from the 11th grade can try living and learning on campus for four weeks. In a summer academy, potential mechanical engineering students attend lectures, get to know the institute's laboratories and work in groups on their own projects.

Because the mechanical engineering institute does not suffer from a lack of young women alone, the program is offered together with the institute for electrical engineering and computer science.

Female professors and students attract young women

In the meantime, the MIT mechanical engineering institute can reap the fruits of years of work. The employees use the gender balance as a recruiting tool. As Admissions Manager Stuart Schmill says, many women on campus promote the university's positive image among young women. And vice versa: Those who hardly have female students and professors on campus will find it difficult to attract young female students.

Former institute director Rohan Abeyaratne remembers the reactions of the students after Anette Hosoi, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, was appointed to the institute's management. "I remember the large number of female students who came to their office hours shortly after they (Ms. Hosois) were hired." At that time he realized that he had to employ more women at the institute if he wanted to get more female students interested in his subject .

Hosoi himself pointed out to the scientists that this was not just about being a role model. Rather, the students wanted to know what their prospects on the job market would be. In the USA as in Germany, the prospects in mint professions are good, salaries in mechanical engineering have been at a high level for years. Incidentally, Hosoi himself came to MIT in the 1990s through a large women's initiative. At that time, like many of her colleagues, she received a call asking her to apply to work at MIT.

Twenty years of catching up

It has been twenty years since MIT's first major promotion for more women. That is how long it took the university to equalize the proportion of women and men among mechanical engineering students. "In order to achieve equality, you need sustained commitment and conscious strategies," explains co-author Walsh. Without the support of the other institutes, without continuous awareness campaigns at one's own university and projects with high public profile, the number of female students in mechanical engineering would not be anywhere near the level it is today.

It is time for universities around the world to worry about the hidden discrimination lurking in their systems. In any case, the potential for more women in mint courses is there.

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A contribution by:

  • Lisa Diez-Holz

    The author was content manager for the TechnikKarriere-News-Portal of the VDI Verlag from 2017 to the end of 2019. Before that, she wrote for VDI nachrichten as an editor.