How Societal Norms Push Women Away from Engineering Careers

Ashanti BenonsMay 20, 2019Society and the IndividualFeatures
How Societal Norms Push Women Away from Engineering Careers

Only about one-fifth of engineering bachelor’s degrees in the United States are awarded to women. The lack of diversity in the field is coupled with the fact that one in four women engineers have left the workplace in the last five years.

As a young child, I fell victim to the idea of gendered toys; I found comfort in feminine toys such as Barbie, American Girl, and Baby Alive dolls. I found comfort in taking on the role of a young mother; I enjoyed buying and changing the clothes that these dolls wore. Under the influence of television ads and the pressure to feel like a proper girl, I steered clear of the male section of the toy store. This is a major reason for the disconnect that I and thousands of other girls feel when we think about engineering careers. It’s difficult to imagine yourself as a builder and designer when Legos and robot-building kits are only found in the male section of the toy store.

The toys with which young children play help shape their career aspirations and attitudes towards different careers. From a young age, feminity is an ideal that is encouraged among girls. Dolls and other dress-up-related toys are regularly marketed towards young girls, fostering an early interest in careers that involve direct interaction with people. Critics of the toy industry have stressed that marketing repeatedly exploits gender stereotypes. The Institution for Engineering and Technology found that toys with a technology focus were three times more likely to be targeted at boys than girls. This is a clear example of how society repeatedly masculinizes the STEM field. By marketing toys that involve action, construction, and machinery towards boys, while marketing dolls and cookery sets towards girls, toy companies tell girls that engineering is not suitable for them. How can a young girl feel comfortable with pursuing engineering when she is being sent the message that it is a boy’s responsibility to be making things and problem solving, while girls should be caregiving? In order to make girls more ambitious, gender-neutral toys designs have been developed by several companies, to foster creativity in girls. These toys should be more widely available to widen girls’ interests from early childhood. Some examples of gender neutral toys that have become increasing popular are STEM Toys, which include magnatiles and snap circuits. These help kids grow and develop in these fields while also focusing on play.

As girls become teenagers and enter adulthood, negative comments and lack of support from family and friends can push them towards other careers out of discomfort. In some cultures, engineering is seen as a man’s job; when parents pass on this belief to their children, it becomes internalized and girls lose interest before it even fully develops.

Unequal educational opportunities within school systems is another reason for students’ lack of interest. According to data from the U.S Department of Education, “More New York City teachers lacked subject-specific certification compared with the state: 35 percent of technology teachers were not subject-certified, compared to 3.9 percent in the state.” Without adequately trained teachers, as well as necessary exposure from coursework and afterschool programs, students may never develop an interest in engineering careers.

For many other women, lack of encouragement from parents and teachers to pursue engineering is enough to lead them down other career paths. Math and science teachers can challenge this trend by encouraging girls to embrace a growth mindset. This concept refers to the the belief that intelligence is not static and can be developed over time with hard work. A growth mindset can help to prevent girls from developing negative stereotypes about their abilities and feeling as though they cannot persist in college courses necessary for engineering careers.

Organizations have also been created to encourage more women to enter STEM fields, including Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code. Through the use of project-based curricula in afterschool programs, summer camps, field trips, and weekend workshops, these two programs focus on empowering girls of all ages across the United States to develop valuable technology and computer programming skills. These programs have been incredibly successful, as graduates go on to major in computer science and graduate college at rates that exceed the national average. I support the missions of programs that aim to encourage more students to enter computer science careers. By taking part in New York on Tech’s Tech360 and Tech Flex Leaders program in my sophomore and junior years of high school, I learned how to build web pages using coding languages such as HTML, CSS, and Javascript. These programs have made me realize that I am passionate about innovation and given me the confidence to see myself as a future engineer.

However, women that do decide to enter engineering careers may feel the need to change career paths due to an uncomfortable work environment. The Society of Women Engineers reports “feelings of isolation . . . [and] bias–both blatant and implicit” as some discouraging factors. Support systems are one effective method that women can rely on to overcome a lack of self confidence. For many women, their persistence in the engineering field is a result of external support from people with shared experiences and organizations that focus on encouraging more female interest in STEM. With constant reassurance from family and friends, colleagues, mentors, professional engineering associations, and university support, women can find belonging within the diverse and rewarding field of engineering.

Not feeling confident enough in their abilities to pursue a career in engineering is a current issue facing women within the United States. From childhood to adulthood, women are discouraged from entering this field by factors such as gender/racial biases, lack of role models, and feelings of isolation from friends and family. In light of this, national organizations like Black Girls Code and Girls Who Code, as well as support systems within colleges, have been developed to establish more role models for women.


Agboola, Adedamola. “Study: Black Women Engineers Lack Role Models and They Experience Bias.” Black Enterprise, April 5, 2018.

Barford, Vanessa. “Do Children's Toys Influence Their Career Choices?” BBC News, January 27, 2014.

Chiose, Simona. “Why Don't Women Go into Engineering? Because They Think They Can't, Researcher Finds.” The Globe and Mail, November 15, 2017.

Donachie, Patrick. “Will the City's New Schools Contract Reduce the Unequal Impact of Teacher Turnover?” City Limits, October 18, 2018.

Selby, Daniele. “Why the Woman Who Inspired Black Girls Code Is Optimistic About the Future of Technology.” Global Citizen, January 22, 2019.

Toy Review Experts. “Gender Neutral Toys: How They Empower Our Kids.” October 26, 2017.

Weale, Sally. “Gendered Toys Could Deter Girls from Career in Engineering, Report Says.” The Guardian, December 8, 2016.

Ashanti Benons is 16 years old and lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is interested in computer science and currently takes part in a robotics team she helped start at her school. In her free time, she enjoys reading fiction novels and drawing.