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Are Women Smart Enough to Be Engineers?

Only 14% of engineers are women. Is this because women aren't smart enough to be engineers? Read More

Low paying career?

I don't think of nursing as a low-paying career: throughout my nursing career, I've made more or the same as my electrical engineer husband.

I do wonder why more men don't pursue nursing. Any ideas?

your comment

You raise an interesting question. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2012 reports, the median salary for a registered nurse was about $68,000, with a range from $45,000 to $95,000. The vast range difference reflect different salary ranges for different nursing specialties.

Using the same report, median salary for electrical engineers was about $92,000, with a range from about $57,000 to $140,000. So on average, nursing does pay significantly less than electrical engineering, particularly at the top end.

With respect to why so few men go into nursing, I think the answer is what I've pointed out in the article: Men tend to choose careers that are object-oriented, while women tend to choose careers that are agent (person) oriented. In terms of occupational values, this usually plays out to mean that men choose occupations based on power and money, while women tend to value work-life balance and social value. See and

Stop in the name of science.

So in other words, it is about gender. But in a good way. For all your efforts and data(which BTW, is very informative), we are back on stage one. Good to know what we already knew...for some.

female engineering perspective

I believe this is predominantly a cultural phenomenon. You mentioned that by adolescence that girls tend to be less interested in math. I have seen data that test scores in math are equivalent for both sexes until fourth grade and then, in the US, the scores for girls decline even though this trend does not happen in other countries (e.g. China, India, etc. ).

I am an electrical engineer in my late 30s. In the US organization in my company, there are 5 women out of roughly 150 field engineers. In our China, Taiwan, Singapore, Philippines, and India facilities approximately 40% of the 200 engineers are women. ( Japan not so much since that is still largely a cultural effect ).

Our engineering work is very much customer-facing and, while technical, also requires soft skills and provides an extremely flexible work-life balance with decent pay ( average of about 140k ), so this work would be attractive to most women from a personal perspective.

Engineering is much different than the other sciences as it requires high spatial ability and this is not something that schools in the US seem to teach at all. While computational math comes quite easily to most, once children get into more complex and abstract math, many are easily lost without a good foundation in spatial skills. Boys are often given more toys and games that build these logic and spatial skills early ( puzzles, chess, video games, building toys, tanagrams, etc. ) that I do believe gives them an edge later on.

your comment

Thank you for your comment, but I'm afraid there are several inaccuracies that need to be addressed.

I appreciate that you strongly believe the gender gap in engineering is primarily cultural, but this belief is simply not supported by the data.

Let's look at India, for example. The same gender difference in preference for biosciences over engineering is found there: "India ranks highly in female representation in science and engineering enrollments, at around 65%, with numbers increasing to 80.4% in the biological, medical and life sciences (including nursing and ayurvedic professions). While female representation in engineering and physics dropped to 32% to 35.8% in 2005-07, this is still the highest rate of the countries studied."

You state that boys are given more toys to play with that require spatial skills, yet ignore the data cited in the blog showing that a gender difference in toy preferences exists not just in humans by in other primate species as well.

You also state that "test scores in math are equivalent for both sexes until fourth grade and then, in the US, the scores for girls decline even though this trend does not happen in other countries (e.g. China, India, etc. )." Yet as I took pains to explain in this blog, the gender gap in engineering is NOT due to differences in math ability. There is no appreciable difference between men and women on SAT math scores, and no difference at all on GRE quantitative scores. So the belief that American girls are steered away from math due to differences in ability or peer/societal pressure is not supported by the actual data.

In The Sexual Paradox, Susan Pinker points out that the countries that offer women the most financial stability and legal protections in job choice, have the greatest gender split in careers (e.g., Percent of women in physics - Philippines: 30%; Canada: 5%). Also the article entitled "As Barriers Disappear, Some Gender Gaps Widen"

Also, I would again ask why it disturbs us so much that women are "under-represented" in engineering--so much so that NSF pours millions of dollars into programs aimed at attracting more females to the field. Yet even larger gender gaps exist in other fields where females predominate, such as nursing, social work, and K-12 education. Why do these differences not elicit the same degree consternation, outrage, fear, shame, and so on? Why are there not programs aimed at attracting more men to these fields? Why do we have such double standards when it comes to an overpowering desire to "close the gender gap"?

silly subject line

dcummins wrote:

Also, I would again ask why it disturbs us so much that women are "under-represented" in engineering--so much so that NSF pours millions of dollars into programs aimed at attracting more females to the field. Yet even larger gender gaps exist in other fields where females predominate, such as nursing, social work, and K-12 education. Why do these differences not elicit the same degree consternation, outrage, fear, shame, and so on? Why are there not programs aimed at attracting more men to these fields? Why do we have such double standards when it comes to an overpowering desire to "close the gender gap"?

I would argue that it is because feminists are chasing a boogeyman that doesn't exist.

The other possibility is that there is money in it. For example breast cancer pink is everywhere now... It is not the most common cancer, and it is not the most deadly cancer, and research for it has gotten no where in the last 30 years but its still everywhere.

unconscious bias

I think you should take a hard look at unconscious gender bias. One unfortunate attribute of it is that societies who are proudest of their equitable policies are most likely to suffer from this bias. I have a study to reference somewhere, but I am too lazy to look it up. I am sure you could find it. This is the reason women are underrepresented in engineering in places like Canada.

I happen to have first hand experience as I am an engineer in R&D in software in Canada. My career and my female colleagues' career are littered with problems as a result of unconscious bias. It is certainly not lack of interest in staying and succeeding in the field.

More successful woman doing interesting work in engineering will interest more girls to study it. It is hard to visualize yourself in a field that includes no one like you enjoying herself.

Its nice to see people

Its nice to see people arguing that women just don't care about it that much. People seem to have taken "men and women as equals" far beyond what that is supposed to mean.

Why It's Important

Very interesting article. I'm a female engineer, and I am well above the cutoffs for intelligence listed in the post. Although I went to school recently my department was less than 20% female. My first job was less that 10% female.

I'm also part of the statistic about people encouraging young women to become engineers, as I've spent a good chunk of time developing outreach programs for young people (especially girls).

As far as why it's important to increase the number of women in engineering, the field is very much still an old boys club. It's not just about wanting to be an engineer, it's about wanting to be an engineer enough to fight off the 1970's-esque discrimination that is very much alive. And telling women they aren't good enough to be engineers starts way before you get to work. I've taught classes of girls selected for high performance in science and technology who have told me that their teacher said that they should focus on "practical" careers like hairdresser, or maid. Not to say these aren't good jobs, just that any person should have more than two options for their future.

Even I have struggled with whether or not I belonged in the industry; not because I wanted to get away from engineering but because I was tired of being asked daily if I'd considered being a secretary. As long as there aren't a reasonable amount of women in our industry, it will continue to be easy to bully women with massive potential from chasing their dreams.

And on the other hand I've never met a woman who claims she was forced into engineering. I do not believe this initiative lock women in the shackles of a terrible career; I think it will allow them to be whatever they want to be.

For what it's worth, I think that there should be more male nurses as well.

@Vanessa I'm curious... I've


I'm curious...

I've known female engineers, but none of them have experienced what you describe. Is there perhaps a different reason why you have?

A question for

A question for Denise...

Often I've read about programs that encourage women/girls to pursue certain careers and programs to help and encourage women to succeed. Why don't I read about similar programs for boys/men?

Even TV shows reflect this. I was watching The Big Bang Theory and in one episode they gave a lecture to young women to encourage them to get into the sciences. Why was this restricted to women? I'm not referring just to the show. Why aren't boys being encouraged?

The reason I ask is because of the vast number of articles which are mostly a reflection of a feminine bias. The reason I ask you (personally) is because while you also do this (this article is an example), most of what you write doesn't give a sexist viewpoint, so I suspect that you would be less biased. Hopefully I'm correct in this assumption.

Your question

OK, I think I understand what you're asking, and here is my answer. I am going to be long-winded, so bear with me.

High prestige, high salaried fields (e.g., computer science, engineering, finance)tend to have far larger proportions of men in them than women. The assumption is that this disparity reflects sexist attitudes that keep women out.

There is certainly evidence of sexism in the path to engineering and computer science careers. Little girls tend to be discouraged from displaying an interest in object-oriented toys (like trucks and Legos), and instead continually have dolls and tutus pressed into their hands. In school, peer pressure turns them away from math and science classes, and if they insist on taking them, they are often ridiculed by peers and overlooked by teachers. By the time they reach high school and college, they are permanently turned off of STEM career paths. So efforts like the NSF initiative and the episode on the Big Bang Theory are attempts to balance all of these discouraging and negative messages that girls and women receive about going into STEM. (I loved that the female scientists were dressed as Disney princesses while they talked about their passion for science in that episode--the message being that you could be a "normal" girl and still be a scientist.)

As you point out, though, and as the Big Bang Theory also amply demonstrates, there is a negative cultural stereotype that discourages boys and men from pursuing STEM careers, namely, STEM is for socially awkward nerds who can't get girlfriends. No real man would go there. So you are absolutely right that we need more programs to attract both sexes to STEM fields.

The acculturation explanation is, I think, only part of the answer. There are other answers that should be considered.

One possible explanation for the dearth of women in computer science and engineering (the highest paid of the STEM fields) is that women's interests end up attracting them to careers that they find intrinsically rewarding by are characterized by low prestige and low pay (e.g., social work, K-12 teaching, non-specialty nursing), or to STEM fields that focus on living things but pay less than computer science and engineering (e.g., biology, chemistry, medicine, psychology).

In contrast, men's interests end up attracting them to high paying prestigious careers, two of which are engineering and computer science. These fields require a high degree of facility in mathematical symbol manipulation, and tests consistently show that the tiny number of individuals who are at the extreme upper end of these abilities by and large tend to be male. Hence, these fields end up being dominated by men.

Another question to ask, though, is why fields like computer science and engineering are held in such high esteem and pay so well--even compared to fields like social work or even medicine? Is it because of market forces--that the former fields yield products for which large numbers of people are willing to pay premium prices? Or is it are they so prestigious and so well-paid precisely because men are interested in them? There have been studies showing that when men enter a field, the status of that field rises where as the reverse happens when women enter a field. So from this viewpoint, computer science and engineering are high status, high paying careers simply because they attract more men.

Another possibility is that men seek out high paying, high prestige careers, and simply will not accept low pay or low status positions if they can avoid it. As a result, they tend to gravitate toward careers that promise high pay, whatever those might be. Once there, they push salaries up higher by demanding ever greater increases in compensation.

As you can see, this is a complex issue, and I for one and disturbed that the Zeitgeist now is simply that the reason females are "underrepresented" in computer science and engineering is due to sexist cultural stereotypes and sexism in schools and workplaces. AS the data show, women are not underrepresented in many other STEM fields. The fact that there are such huge efforts devoted to attracting women to just two subfields of STEM and virtually no effort devoted to attracting more men to (e.g.,) nursing (where there is a chronic shortage of well-trained professionals) should give us pause.

Thanks, your reply is very

Thanks, your reply is very much appreciated.

I think engineering and the sciences are well paid because there is a monetary return on innovation and invention (technology). BTW, these are the fields that I respect the most because every new discovery creates a stepping stone for future advancements.

I would have to question the idea that the pay is higher because it is male dominated, but I'll keep my mind open.

There is one issue that you mentioned that interest me. You said that as more women get into certain high paying fields, the status of the field drops. I'm going to assume that the pay also drops. Perhaps this is why more women are getting hired over men? Equal productivity for less money. That's just a question...

Keep up your work on A.I., I believe it to be the next major revolutionary advancement of humanity. Machines have gone far at replacing human labor, so I often wonder what changes A.I. will bring.

Jumping the gun...

In response to Vanessa's email which doesn't show on this blog (yet).

I really appreciate your response and I want you to know that I don't question your intelligence nor question your experiences.

You sound like someone that shouldn't be treated as you were. Perhaps your mistreatment was based on jealousy more so than sexism. I worked in a salary position for many years and the amount of backstabbing was extraordinary. If I hadn't experienced it myself, I wouldn't believe it. My girlfriend who taught school all her life recants stories, one after another, of school politics gone awry.

Anyway, when I make responses or ask questions, I try to do so without being biased or judgmental. I know it doesn't always seem that way and from some of the responses I get back, I wasn't very clear about my intentions. Oh well, that's to be expected...

Thank you for the outreach classes. That says a lot about you.

I know I'm late to the table

I know I'm late to the table on this topic...but I read an article recently that talked about how girls have less tolerance for low grades than boys...and so, once they hit some of the really tough courses in STEM fields and get C's or whatever, they transfer into something easier. (And that can happen in high school - well before college majors are chosen.)

I've certainly seen that in my own kids. My boys didn't care much at all about grades - but they both graduated with technical graduate degrees and got good jobs. My girl demanded straight A's and, although she started out a math major, ended up in elementary school teaching.

your comment

This is a very intriguing idea. Thanks for posting it, and do feel free to post the URL (link) to the article as well.

Nice post. See also this

Nice post. See also this NYTimes article on the Stanford class of '94, which highlights the way the tech boom passed over women almost entirely.

This highlights a problem with the end of your analysis, on why it matters if women are in computer engineering or not. Information technology is transforming society in ways psychology is not. Not only are men the authors of epoch-making changes, but they are reaping the financial benefits. While men take risks to establish new industries, women it seems are, at best, vying for top management positions. This is not the equality feminists were looking for.

Making income equal will not resolve this problem of leadership.

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Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D., is the author Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, and Evolution of Mind.


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