The cultural underpinnings of sex segregation

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  • Women in Engineering

The cultural underpinnings of sex segregation

Summary

This paper examines how professional socialization may perpetuate occupational sex segregation. The authors use a unique set of data – diary entries and interviews – to show how college students’ socialization into the field of engineering leads women to believe that they are a “bad fit” for engineering culture, making it more likely that they will exit the profession. The authors identify three processes through which the “bad fit” feeling is cemented: (1) orientation to engineering at college entry, (2) initiation rituals in coursework and (3) team projects, and socialization during internships and summer jobs. Throughout each process, female engineering students share experiences that differ from those of their male counterparts. As these experiences accumulate over the course of their four years in the program, women are confronted with the feeling that they may not belong in engineering, while men’s experiences equip them with confidence to embrace their identities as budding engineers.

Research

While much has been written about the ways that occupational prestige and individual preferences influence sex segregation in labour markets, less is known about how factors unique to occupations, such as professional culture, may also perpetuate sex segregation.

The authors of this study examine the field of engineering in order to refine our understanding of how professional culture may influence the likelihood of sex segregation.

They followed engineering cohorts at four colleges in the U.S. and had 40 students fill out diary entries in which they reflect on their experiences in the program. In addition to the bi-monthly diary entries, they conducted interviews with 100 students during the first and fourth year of the program. Students highlighted three major processes through which their socialization into the field of engineering was cemented: (1) orientation to engineering at college entry, (2) initiation rituals in coursework and team projects, and (3) socialization during internships and summer jobs.

Findings: Men and women experience socialization differently

While everyone entered the program with a strong careerist orientation, women were more likely to acknowledge their desire to use their career as a way of helping people (for example, by engaging in humanitarian work). By contrast, men did not express an interest in using their career to create social change and instead signaled their interest in opportunities to solve problems.

Following this initial difference in orientation, men and women were both exposed to a newly emerging pecking order, where they were no longer the top of their class. While both men and women experienced fear about whether they have what it takes to make it through the program, women were more likely to seek validation from their peers and professors for reassurance that they possess the technical competency to be an engineer. On the other hand, when male students received a low grade, it did not shake their confidence in their abilities, and they were more likely to blame poor performance on bad time management, or some other set of external factors.

In addition to navigating new pecking orders, the diary entries singled out the importance of teamwork for informing students’ understanding of engineering culture.

In instances of group work, women were more likely to experience exclusion and were relegated to menial or administrative tasks by their male peers. By contrast, male students had positive experiences with group work, which they perceived as providing them the opportunity to “show their stuff” and hone their identity as engineers.

The final process that reinforced students’ perceptions of engineering culture was the experience of internships. Many female students wrote about their encounters with sexism and marginalization: they experienced sexual harassment and reported being assigned menial tasks by senior managers while male interns were assigned more technical engineering work. This differs markedly from men’s experiences, where their internships cemented their self-confidence in their skills and validated their decision to pursue engineering as a career.

Women’s cumulative experiences throughout the four-year program reinforced a feeling that they weren’t a good fit for engineering; they find out that their career orientations differ from those of men, and they experience blatant sexism and stereotyping, resulting in estrangement from, rather than attachment to, engineering as a profession. The authors conclude that the day-to-day experiences with cultures of male-dominated professions during the formative years of socialization may be an important predictor of women’s exit from such fields.

Implications

  • Team culture – While teamwork settings are often assumed to facilitate opportunities for women, such settings may actually reinforce gender inequality. Those in charge of managing team-based projects can ensure that women are not tokenized in such settings by filling teams with equal numbers of men and women, or at a minimum, filling teams with no fewer than three women. Doing so may provide women with sufficient power in numbers to prevent the women in such teams from being assigned menial tasks.
  • Leadership education – Because much of the marginalization that female students experience occurs on job sites, efforts to educate leaders about gender discrimination in male-dominated fields may likewise mitigate women’s negative experiences.

More Research Briefs

Title

Persistence is Cultural: Professional Socialization and the Reproduction of Sex Segregation

Authors

Carroll Seron, Susan Silbey, Erin Cech, and Brian Rubineau

Institutions

University of California Irvine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Michigan, McGill University

Source

Work and Occupations

Published

2016

Link

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0730888415618728

Research brief prepared by

Kim de Laat

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