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Sex, Gender, and Engineering
Harassment at Work and in School
By Jennifer VanAntwerp and Denise Wilson
Times have changed, but have they changed enough? Indeed, are they changing in the right direction?
Is sexual harassment becoming a thing of the past, or is it simply becoming more subtle and harder to detect, while the harmful outcomes for women and other victims continue unabated?
In engineering, there is certainly cause for concern when it comes to these questions. Other fields like law, math, and many sciences have made great strides in overcoming the gender gap. In fact, many STEM fields are approaching, or have achieved, gender parity. In stark contrast, engineering remains stubbornly stuck: women make up only 15% of working engineers. Among undergraduate students, this number is a bit higher (about 22%), but this percentage hasn’t really budged over the past 20 years.
The gender imbalance alone is a risk factor for more sexual harassment. Unfortunately, this is compounded by the masculine culture of engineering. Male behavioral norms dominate many engineering workplaces and classrooms, to the degree that a much narrower range of behaviors is considered acceptable and rewarded. The double hit of numerical and normative male dominance almost guarantees sexual harassment rates that are higher than average. Sadly, this higher rate of harassment is indeed what the data show.
The #MeToo movement has left no doubt that sexual harassment is a serious problem in a wide range of workplaces. However, particularly notable in engineering, the impacts ripple outward beyond the careers and pathways of the immediate victims or even the bystanders. For decades, there has been substantial effort to increase diversity in engineering. Sexual harassment works vigorously against this. It not only dissuades women and other minorities from becoming engineers or persisting in engineering; it also limits the productivity and creativity of those who remain in engineering. Ultimately, this reduces diversity of thought and the global competitiveness of companies and countries that fail to effectively intervene. Yet, engineers are also some of the best problem solvers in the world. So, why does engineering still have a problem with sexual harassment? This book takes a closer look at these issues and explores the changing face of sexual harassment that women in engineering (and others who do not conform to traditional masculine behavioral norms) face-from the moment they enroll in their first engineering class to their post-degree experiences, whether in academia or in the corporate sector.
Given the persistent nature of both numerical and normative male dominance in many engineering fields, sexual harassment is particularly difficult to eliminate. The #MeToo movement has led to reductions in explicit sexual misconduct (such as assault or direct threat of being fired, among others). Unfortunately, backlash from the movement and shifts in attitudes toward women emerging from the Trump era have created a different, more nuanced landscape of gender discrimination and harassment. Thus, sexual harassment, particularly gender harassment, persists in many engineering workplaces and classrooms. “Bro” cultures that look like errant fraternities run wild still exist in engineering workplaces at some high-tech companies, as well as in other sectors where the high value placed on high-performing engineering talent and creativity enables tolerance of poor, inappropriate, and often illegal behaviors.
Rates of sexual harassment and other statistics provide sufficient evidence that engineering continues to have a harassment problem. Still, the numbers alone do not fully paint the picture of what it’s like to work or learn in an engineering culture-experiencing, or facing the threat of, continuing sexual harassment. In Sex, Gender, and Engineering, we strive to complete this picture. To complement the statistics behind the prevalence of harassment, we add real and relevant first-person stories of the women (and men) who have been sexually harassed. Our goal is not only to validate the experiences of those who have been harassed, but to provide the rest of the engineering community a direct window into what harassment looks and feels like. These stories can be more complex and nuanced than what makes the front pages of newspapers, meaning well-intentioned engineers can miss the harm happening right in their midst.
This book also reflects upon and explores the impact of recent societal changes on the landscape of sexual harassment: the shift toward more remote work, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, changes in the presidential administration in the United States, and increasing public allegations against high profile companies like Google and Activision Blizzard. The pace of the shift in the cultural context of harassment has been dizzying and merits reflective consideration.
Despite a long history of gender parity remaining out of reach for engineering in the US, there is definitely hope for change. While sexual harassment training may have largely been a perfunctory mandate for a limited number of organizations in the past, knowledge and insight regarding how to be more effective in such training is building rapidly, and the tools for change are at our doorstep. Employee activism is also on the rise, expanding upon, and adding momentum to, the traditional, top-down modes of change that rely on top-level organizational leadership to initiate meaningful change.
This book provides comprehensive literature reviews on sexual harassment topics for academic researchers, as well as practical insights and strategies for engineers and engineering managers to combat sexual harassment. Whether you are on the outside of engineering work and looking in, or on the inside of engineering and looking around, we invite you to learn more, explore how to promote change, and join us on the journey toward a more harassment-free workplace in engineering. Eliminating sexual harassment is only one step, but it is a critical one if we are to develop a more diverse engineering workplace. This diversity is necessary not only to provide for individual dignity and justice; true diversity is necessary to expand innovation capacity and productivity for today’s pressing global challenges.
Sex, Gender, and Engineering: Harassment at Work and in School is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.