Are Women Engineers Really in Demand?

Study finds hiring managers are less likely to employ women in science fields

20 May 2014

Photo: iStockphoto

Companies continue to despair about the lack of women engineers in the workplace. Many reasons are given: young girls aren’t encouraged to study science, technology, engineering, and math fields known as STEM; a shortage of role models; and stereotypes in the media are just a few. But maybe the companies should instead look at their hiring practices. 

A recent study found that hiring managers from technology companies chose men twice as often as women, according to the results published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In “How Stereotypes Impair Women’s Careers in Science,” researchers from Columbia Business School, Kellogg School of Management, and Booth School of Business conducted a test in which 200 male and female managers were asked to hire a candidate from a pool of 150. The managers based their decisions on the results of a mathematical task and the person’s appearance, thereby making the gender obvious. No other information about the applicant was given. The test required candidates to add up as many pairs of two-digit numbers as possible in four minutes. Previous studies have shown that both genders have done well on this test.

The researchers set out to find whether discrimination was a factor in the low percentage of women in mathematics and science careers even though females outnumber males in undergraduate enrollment. The researchers selected mathematics because “there is a pervasive stereotype that men perform better.”

“Studies that seek to answer why there are more men than women in STEM fields typically focus on women's interests and choices,” says Ernesto Reuben, an assistant professor of management at Columbia, in a news release. “This may be important, but our experiments show that another culprit of this phenomenon is that hiring managers possess an extraordinary level of gender bias when making decisions and filling positions, often times choosing the less qualified male over a superiorly qualified female.”

The results showed that whether the hiring manager was a man or woman, both sexes associated women less strongly with mathematical skills than men. Moreover, when candidates were allowed to tell the manager about how well they believed they could perform the task, men tended to boast about their performance while women underreported it, which brought to light another concern about the hiring process. Even when employers received objective information about a candidate’s past performance on the test, female candidates were still chosen significantly less often then male candidates despite comparable scores. This bias often led to hiring candidates who were less-capable. The end result is not only a less diverse workforce and a male-dominated STEM field, Reuben says, but also a detriment to these companies for hiring the less-skilled person for the job.

“If you believe that women aren’t good in math and science, you often resist updating that belief—even when confronted by evidence to the contrary,” he says. “Raising awareness of this problem is a step in the right direction. Hiring managers need to disassociate themselves from general stereotypes and focus on the candidate. Leaving your personal experiences out of the process will likely land you the best candidate.”

If you want to know more about the issues facing women working in STEM careers, check out a new e-book series from IEEE-USA. The first volume, “Women in Engineering: Inspire and Close the Gender Gap,” written by IEEE Senior Member Nita Patel, chair of the IEEE Women in Engineering committee, provides a global perspective.

Do you believe discrimination contributes to the low number of women engineers? What needs to be done to solve this problem?

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