Comparative and International Perspectives on Women in Engineering

Some of the research discussed in SWE’s annual literature review concerns countries other than the United States. Of course, there is far more research on engineering outside the U.S. — SWE’S review discusses only research published in English, while most of the research on specific countries is published in the language of the country being studied. Still, the volume of international research SWE reviews is substantial, so it is worth giving some thought to its significance.

A few of the studies SWE has reviewed are truly comparative in nature, either comparing the situation of female engineers in a small number of countries, or, in some cases, developing a classification system into which a wide range of countries’ experiences can be sorted. Studies such as these are made possible by the existence of large-scale data sets comparing information on a range of countries. Organizations such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are particularly important sources of this kind of comparative data. The latter’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, which measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics, and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges, has been a particularly important source for researchers in examining national differences in young people’s aptitude in and orientation toward STEM disciplines.

Among truly comparative studies, one can mention the research, discussed in this year’s literature review, exploring the relationship between the status of women in general in particular countries and the likelihood that women in those countries will pursue engineering majors and careers. Other examples include an article by Singh and Peers (2019) that classifies countries into four categories, then tries to use this system to note differences in women’s participation in engineering. In 2021, Hägglund and Leuze analyzed the occupational expectations of 15-year-olds in 35 OECD countries. Using OECD data as well as data from the PISA data base (see above), they find that the gender gap in STEM career expectations is higher in countries where the post-industrial, service labor market is more highly developed, primarily because boys’ STEM expectations in such countries were higher. Moe, Hausmann, and Hirnstein (2021) report on a comparative study of STEM students in three countries (Norway, the U.K., and Italy), finding that the likelihood that men and women will endorse gender stereotypes about various abilities is affected by the country’s overall gender gap.

Comparative studies such as these can shed light on the differences between female engineers’ experiences in various countries and help researchers and policymakers identify what is unique (and what is not) about the U.S. case. There are also many studies of individual countries, usually based on data collected by the researchers themselves or on publicly available data for the country in question. These studies are not written with an explicit comparative intent; indeed, in many cases, as with many studies using U.S. data, researchers discuss data specific to one country as if it applied to engineering everywhere. For U.S. readers, the principal value of these studies is to educate them about women’s situation in engineering in other countries and to use this knowledge to put the U.S. situation in context.

Recently published research illustrates well what can be learned from national studies of this type. Beckmann’s (2021) study of German adolescents reveals that the gender gap in STEM aspirations can be affected by classroom context. She finds that the gender gap in students’ occupational expectations is larger in classrooms characterized by high mathematical expectations and aspirations toward STEM. In these classrooms, female students less frequently expect to work in STEM careers; male students more frequently. Beckmann does not offer suggestions as to what to do about this, nor does she suggest that her results are specific to the German context, but her results point to an issue that U.S. researchers may wish to consider.

Jasko et al.’s (2020) study of women in Polish engineering finds that they face a variety of challenges, including a salary gap, greater difficulty finding employment, and a greater likelihood of being employed in jobs inconsistent with their qualifications. As pointed out in the 2020 literature review, this is surprising in a country where women’s share of science and engineering employment is much higher than in the U.S. (close to 48%) and indicates that simply increasing the numbers of women in U.S. engineering will not, by itself, guarantee gender equity. Rincon et al.’s (2019) report on SWE’s study of women engineers in India highlights similarities and differences to the U.S. case, noting that Indian women engineers face many of the same challenges, but also encounter ones unique to India (“stop-go bias” and legislation intended to “protect” women from late night employment).

Having a comparative focus and an understanding of national differences is significant also because of the importance of international cooperation in achieving gender equity in engineering and science, not just in the U.S., but globally. There has been ongoing interest among engineering educators and others in learning from one another and collaborating on the work of increasing women’s access to engineering and engineering equity more broadly. The 2007 literature review included a sidebar (Hill and Frehill 2007) describing the various forms international cooperation to encourage equity in engineering can take: from the establishment of Engineers Without Borders chapters, to the Fulbright program, to conferences at which scholars can share information about the experiences of their country, etc. Work such as this that reaches across national borders continues, including the work of SWE itself, which has conducted research internationally and holds events including roundtables and regional conferences in various countries. International collaboration by scientists and engineers can also be an important element in professional development. Researchers have found that women, particularly in the United States, are less likely than their male counterparts to be successful in developing those international collaborations, so having a greater understanding of how engineering and science are organized in various countries, and women’s place within that, can be an important tool in promoting women’s careers in engineering and science (Zippel 2017; Fox et al. 2017).

Beckmann, J. (2021). Gendered Career Expectations in Context: the Relevance of Normative and Comparative Reference Groups. British Journal of Sociology of Education 42(7): 968–88.

Fox, M.F., M.L. Realff, D.R. Rueda, and J. Morn (2017). International Research Collaboration Among Women Engineers: Frequency and Perceived Barriers, by Regions. The Journal of Technology Transfer 42(6): 1292–1306.

Hägglund, A.E. and K. Leuze (2021). Gender Differences in STEM Expectations Across Countries: How Perceived Labor Market Structures Shape Adolescents’ Preferences. Journal of Youth Studies 24(5): 634-54.

Hill, S. and L. Frehill (2007). International Perspectives on Engineering Education. A Compendium of the SWE Annual Literature Reviews on Women in Engineering: 116.

Jasko, K., J. Pyrkosz-Pacyna, G. Czarnek, K. Dukała, and M. Szastok (2020). The STEM Graduate: Immediately After Graduation, Men and Women Already Differ in Job Outcomes, Attributions for Success, and Desired Job Characteristics. Journal of Social Issues 76(3): 512–542.

Moè, A., M. Hausmann, and M. Hirnstein (2021). Gender Stereotypes and Incremental Beliefs in STEM and Non-STEM students in Three Countries: Relationships with Performance in Cognitive Tasks. Psychological Research 85(2): 554–67.

Rincon, R., R.M. Korn, and J.C. Williams (2019). Examining Gender Bias in Engineering in India. ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Tampa, Fla.

Singh, S. and S.M.C. Peers (2019). Where Are the Women in the Engineering Labour Market? A Cross-Sectional Study. International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology 11(1).

Zippel, K. (2017). Women in Global Science: Advancing Academic Careers Through International Collaboration. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.