How To Counter Harmful Gender Stereotypes in Engineering


The COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to take a disproportionate toll on women in the workforce. According to a recent report from Rapid Research Information Forum, women, compared to men, are likely spending more time taking care of family members, causing them to experience more disruptions to their work. The report’s findings are based on gender disparities that already exist in the home. If this problem continues, it could roll back progress that women have made in science and technology fields.

“The hard-won gains made by women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) are at risk, especially if employers of people with STEM skills do not closely monitor and mitigate the gender impact of their decisions,” writes Beth Daley in The Conversation

Why are Women Getting Left Behind?

The challenges faced by women in STEM began long before the pandemic. Many women struggle professionally because they are often forced to make sacrifices to their careers when they have children. According to a recent report from the Office of the Chief Scientist in Australia, which looked at the country’s 2016 census data, female STEM professionals who did not have children were more likely to still have their jobs after five years than those who did have children. Whereas 80 percent of those who did not have children were still employed full time, just 34 percent of those who did have children were still employed full time, 28 percent were employed part time, 16 percent were away from work, and 3 percent were unemployed.

Implicit Gender Stereotypes Can Discourage Women from Participating in STEM

Researchers have found that gender stereotypes play a strong role in discouraging women from pursuing careers in STEM. A recent study from Carnegie Mellon, published in the August edition of Nature Human Behavior, revealed that implicit gender stereotypes are embedded in the very language we speak. The researchers looked at 25 languages in order to understand how gender stereotypes in language discourages gender equality in STEM careers. They found that linguistic associations, rather than language that is explicitly sexist, plays a role in the way people judge whether a woman can accomplish certain things. For example, the team examined how frequently the word “woman” was used in conjunction with words like “home” and “children,” as well as how often the word “man” was used alongside words like “career,” “work,” and “business.”

The team discovered that languages with strongly ingrained gender association are strongly linked with career stereotypes. They found a strong relationship between gender-marked professional terms and the power of these stereotypes.

“What’s not obvious is that a lot of information that is contained in language, including information about cultural stereotypes, [occurs not as] direct statements but in large-scale statistical relationships between words,” Gary Lupyan, a senior author of the study, told Science Daily. “Even without encountering direct statements, it is possible to learn that there is stereotype embedded in the language of women being better at some things and men at others.”

Organizational branding can play a big role in reinforcing implicit gender stereotypes. For example, a recent report published in Gender, Technology and Development looked at images featured in the pavilions of ten European countries during the 2017 Astana Expo, which took place in Kazakhstan. They discovered that only a handful of the countries featured women or people of color as scientists, and that those that did did so sparingly. In particular, only 1 out of 15 of Austria’s pavilion featured a female scientist. 

One of the study’s authors, Dr Anna CohenMiller, told The Express Tribune that gender-biased branding perpetuates gender stereotypes. “The stereotypes are then reproduced in schools, in the workplace, and in homes, collectively disadvantaging women in all spheres of life,” she said.

How Can Organizations Counter Gender Stereotypes?

Hiring and promoting more women within your organization is a great way to help overcome negative gender bias. Hiring more women can also make your organization more successful. According to the Women In STEM Decadal Plan, a report published by the Australian Academy of Science in 2019, there is evidence that organizations with leadership and boards that include men and women equally are more successful than those consisting of mostly men.  “Women enable teams to perform more effectively, including in innovation-oriented businesses,” the report states.

There are other ways organizations can make women feel more welcome. Setting diversity goals, as well as specific milestones to attain those goals, training hiring managers to recognize unconscious bias, and highlighting women in your organization’s branding efforts are all great ways to attract women.

Creating Female STEM Leaders

IEEE has partnered with Rutgers Business School to offer the IEEE | Rutgers Online Mini-MBA for Engineers. Designed specifically for groups of ten or more within an organization, this program operates entirely online. It features topics including business strategy, managing product development, finance, negotiation, managing human capital, intellectual property strategy, and transformational agility.

Participants will learn how to make organizational decisions with both technical and operational considerations. After developing an understanding of how different functional groups interact to achieve overall goals, they will learn to apply their newly developed business skills to better align their technical capabilities with business strategy.

The program offers the option of a customized capstone project, completely aligned to the needs of your organization. As part of the project, you’ll receive feedback from program professors who have worked as engineering leaders themselves.

To learn more about the IEEE | Rutgers Online Mini-MBA for Engineers for your organization, contact an IEEE Account Manager today.


Haider, Sarah B. (23 August 2020). Gendered imagery at scientific events perpetuates stereotypes, study finds. The Express Tribune.

Carnegie Mellon University. (3 August 2020). Language may undermine women in science and tech. Science Daily. 

Finkel, Alan and Harvey-Smith, Lisa. (24 July 2020). Chief Scientist: women in STEM are still far short of workplace equity. COVID-19 risks undoing even these modest gains. The Conversation.

2019. Women in STEM Decadal Plan. Australian Academy of Science. 

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  1. Why Women in Tech Favor Companies With Strong Diversity Goals - IEEE Innovation at Work - October 18, 2020

    […] engineering, and math (STEM), many are still left behind. Recent research has found that persistent gender stereotypes and the reported overly masculine culture discourage women from entering these fields in the first […]

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