Why aren’t more women selecting technical careers? - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Why aren’t more women selecting technical careers?

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This month we celebrate National Women's History Month, and as we reflect on the accomplishments of women over the years, there is probably agreement that women share equally in many of life's events.  When we look for evidence of equality, we only have to look at the women who have served in wars, the women who have served as secretary of state, women who have served as international ambassadors and the thousands of women who serve as single heads of household.  Yet, women still fall short on some fronts, particularly in the numbers of women who select technical fields of study as their choice for professional careers.

I recently asked for data from my institution of higher education on the gender distribution across our majors. Hoping for some evidence of career choice equalization, I was somewhat surprised to discover that traditions still reign supreme across many technical majors that have historically attracted more men than women.  For example, data revealed the following percentages in some of our technical degree programs:

n Engineering Technology — 96 percent male.

n Industrial Maintenance — 97 percent male.

n Welding Technology — 96 percent male.

Conversely, the following traditionally female oriented professions were retaining their single gender prominent status:

n Early Childhood Education — 95 percent female.

n Surgical Technology — 100 percent female.

Why aren't women selecting technical careers, particularly when many of these professions have high beginning salaries and play an important role in jobs for the 21st century? I believe the issues that impact women entering technical training are the same ones that keep some women out of the sciences.  Several years ago Laurence Summers, former president of Harvard University, stated that he believed that that there might be a genetic difference between men and women when it came to performance in the sciences, a statement for which he profusely apologized and further recanted under immense pressure.

As I thought more and more about the issue, I knew -— and evidence supports — that women are just as cognitively capable of achieving in the sciences and technical fields as males and indeed, in some instances better suited. Yet, the numbers reveal a different ending to this story.  What is the culprit?  

Perhaps it is a culprit beyond any physiological or biological difference due to gender. Perhaps it is a quiet giant otherwise known as the Pygmalion effect that keeps women from delving into technical fields of study outside their historical comfort zones.  

The Pygmalion effect, otherwise known as the self-fulfilling prophecy, was originally derived from ancient mythology in which the sculptor Pygmalion sought to create the statue of the ideal woman. Once created, he fell in love with the statue because he believed what he had crafted was the perfect woman. In essence Pygmalion had fulfilled his dream by projecting his expectations beyond any remote reality.  Hence, the Pygmalion effect — we tend to act in ways that are consistent with others' expectations of us. 

According to Robert Rosenthal, a researcher who has studied this phenomenon since the early 1970s, the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy can be summarized in these key principles: 

n We form certain expectations of people or events. 

n We communicate those expectations with various cues. 

n People tend to respond to these cues by adjusting their behavior to match them. 

n The result is that the original expectation becomes true. 

Following this logic, if women believe they can pursue technical fields of study, and expectations of others around them support this notion, women are more apt to pursue this option and, more importantly, believe in their own abilities to be successful. If we expect woman to become auto mechanics, welders, and industrial maintenance workers, they may come. 

Of course, simply believing one can achieve is no guarantee of success. Yet, we have to realize that if we promulgate the notion that women are not predisposed for technical fields of study, the damage we wreak upon young girls who are forming their notions and beliefs may be insurmountable. We need to believe that women can be successful in technical professions and work diligently to nurture this concept to provide opportunities for women in today's world. 

So what can we do?  At our institution we are planning to host a summer camp to encourage young women interested in technical fields of study and the sciences.  We have hired excellent female role models in technical fields of study.  We are implementing new programs to attract mature, non-traditional women to technical fields of study.  Is it enough?  Time will tell.

We support the maxim that "believing is seeing." If we believe women can pursue technical fields of study, we will see more women in technical jobs.

Rhonda Tracy is senior vice president for academic affairs at West Virginia University at Parkersburg.  

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