Working Women and Economy

Challenging gender stereotypes in education

Gender stereotypes can contribute to the gender gap in engineering and math-related careers

Nadeem Khan

Despite constituting nearly half of the population, women represent under-utilised talent in Pakistan. Historically, women have remained under-represented in most engineering disciplines.

In the winter of 2021, after failing the Medical Colleges Admission Test for the second time, Sidra* went missing. Why did she disappear?

Sidra had been a bright student at her school in a village in Swat. She was especially interested in science and mathematics. Her interest in physics grew in later years. She scored more than 1,000 marks out of 1,100 in her intermediate examination.

However, this didn’t satisfy her father. He had wanted her to pass the MDCAT and earn an MBBS degree. Sidra‘s interest lay elsewhere—in physics.

When she didn’t succeed in her first attempt at the MDCAT, she got admission to the Department of Physics at a nearby university. However, her father pressed her to cancel her admission and prepare for a second MDCAT attempt.

Finally, the MDCAT was held and the results uploaded on the relevant website. Sidra had failed the test again. She left a note on her biology book, it said: “Please don’t search for me; I am going away forever.“

Sidra‘s story underscores several important facts: first, many parents force their children to study medical science because the medical profession provides guaranteed jobs, while engineers sometimes struggle for their livelihoods. Second, engineers may have to spend days and nights in remote areas on account of the nature of their jobs.

Additionally, socio-cultural stereotypes often suggest that women are best suited for careers like teaching and nursing. An engineering student told this scribe, “While on a construction site or a communication network, a girl might need to use a restroom. Where will she go?”

According to Pakistan Engineering Council data, women make up about 10 percent of the registered engineers in the country. This indicates a significant gender disparity in the profession. The Pakistan Council for Science and Technology states, “Despite constituting almost half the population, women represent under-utilised talent in Pakistan. Women have remained under-represented in most disciplines of science and technology.”

Most of the reasons mentioned by teachers as well as students for this disparity were based on women’s ‘biological disposition’. For example, women are thought to excel at rote learning, making them more suitable for careers in health sector and humanities.

However, research suggests that the reasons behind the lack of women in engineering fields are not biological but socio-cultural. A lecturer in software engineering at the University of Peshawar says, “Studying computer science and software engineering requires a strong background in mathematics. This is often not a girl’s forte.” He says, “Most girls are weak in mathematics. This weakness cannot be overcome by cramming, which is how many of them pass examinations.”

Zohaib, an electrical engineer, says that there was only one girl in their class of around fifty students. “All the students would make fun of the girl,” he says. Some of the boys would ask her, “How will you climb a pole to fix the power cables?”

Qazi Waqar, a graduate in electrical engineering from the University of Lahore, says there were only three girls and 120 boys in their class of 2018. When asked if his female classmates had found jobs, he said he didn’t know about it. However, he says in his four-year career, which included working for the National Transmission and Dispatch Company in Islamabad and Neom City, Saudi Arabia, he had never seen a female engineer. “Females don’t work there; they can’t even pass through the body searches of the NTDC,” he says.

Considering engineering a male preserve has negative consequences. “A lack of diversity results in a lack of creativity,” says Tooba, an engineering graduate. She says engineers typically work in teams, and it has been observed that in homogenous groups, all members think alike and come up with the same ideas.

In the automotive industry, she says, “we have airbags that are perfectly designed for male passengers but can injure women. We have a tailgate on a minivan that women can’t pull down.“

Wajiha, a software engineer, says when sceptics objected to female soldiers’ difficulties in carrying heavy backpacks in the US military, optimists responded by saying that women couldn’t carry them not because they were unfit for soldiering but because the bags had not been designed for them. “They were designed by men, for men,“ she says. “Creativity in our solutions requires diversity in our approach to those solutions. Engineering has been a non-diverse field.“

Achievement of diversity in engineering has been hindered by gender stereotypes. These stereotypes fuel implicit bias against women in engineering. These biases are more damaging than the stereotypes themselves because they affect our attitudes, reactions and behaviours toward women in engineering. They also cause a stream of “micro-inequities” or “micro-insults” aimed at women. These may not seem like a big deal on the surface, but in the long run, they harm girls and prevent them from realising their full potential.

Evidence suggests that many women are complicit in perpetuating such implicit biases. We must educate ourselves about these biases and their effect on the society. We must be vigilant about their influence on our behaviours and attitudes and the negative consequences they have for women.

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