September 6, 2016

New project to study why certain predominantly Muslim nations have higher rates of women engineers than U.S.

Jennifer DeBoer Jennifer DeBoer
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – New research aims to help reverse decades of failed efforts to increase the percentage of women in engineering in the United States by studying nations where the disparity is not as severe: Jordan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.

"The U.S. engineering shortage weakens the country's position as a leader in the global market and restricts the country's capacity to solve key infrastructural challenges," said Jennifer DeBoer, a principal investigator of the study and an assistant professor of engineering education at Purdue University. "For decades, the U.S. government, industry and professional societies have contributed billions of dollars to increase women's participation in engineering with minimal impact. If you look at overall women's participation in engineering it's on the order of 15 to 20 percent. Identifying factors that inhibit the participation of competent and interested women in engineering fields is a precursor to the nation gaining a competitive edge in sectors reliant on science and technology."

One strategy to more effectively attack the problem is to learn from Jordan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, where the percentage of women in engineering careers ranges from 24 to 50 percent.

The project is a collaboration involving researchers from Purdue, Washington State University and Western Washington University. The other principal investigator is Julie Kmec, a professor of sociology and the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts at Washington State. The team also includes three co-principal investigators. (A YouTube video is available at https://youtu.be/GPHEJQjyjXs)

"Although women in the United States now earn more undergraduate degrees than men, they still receive fewer engineering degrees and hold fewer engineering faculty positions and fewer private sector engineering jobs than men," Kmec said. 

The project, funded with a two-year $589,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, represents a step toward identifying the mechanisms that motivate women to pursue engineering as a curricular and career choice.

"The United States has allotted tremendous resources to increase women's engineering representation with minimal national impact," Kmec said. "The paradox is that women's engineering participation has expanded significantly in many predominately Muslim countries (PMCs) where national efforts to promote women's engineering participation, if they exist at all, look different than U.S. efforts. In three of the four countries we will study, women are between 24-50 percent of engineering college graduates, compared to about 19 percent in the United States. Women's engineering participation in PMCs is surprising for reasons beyond just the absence of collective national STEM-focused programmatic efforts to increase representation; women in PMCs typically experience social, political and economic restrictions. In contrast, certain indicators suggest women's status in the United States is among the highest in the world."

One objective is to identify the "micro- and macro-level facilitating conditions" behind higher women's participation in engineering in Jordan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. The researchers will conduct focus groups with three distinct sets of women: engineering students, engineering faculty members and practicing engineers in industry.

"These micro- and macro-facilitating conditions refer to what's going on for individual women at a given time," DeBoer said. "The macro conditions are the policy level conditions, the cultural environment, the overall political climate for women's rights. For example, what labor laws exist to require equal treatment."

Writer: Emil Venere, 765-494-3470, venere@purdue.edu

J. Adrian Aumen, Washington State University communications, 509-335-5671, adriana@wsu.edu 

Sources: Jennifer DeBoer, 765-496-0195, deboerj@purdue.edu

Julie A. Kmec, 509-335-8760, jkmec@wsu.edu

Note to Journalists: A YouTube video is available at https://youtu.be/GPHEJQjyjXs and other videos and materials are available on Google drive at https://goo.gl/VY6qpJ

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