Women and Technology: Disrupting Leadership in Engineering Education

Women and Technology: Disrupting Leadership in Engineering Education

Jennifer Loy (University of Technology Sydney, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7056-1.ch015


This chapter looks at challenges for women in leadership in technical disciplines, specifically mechanical and civil engineering. It considers strategies being employed to correct the gender imbalance and highlights the particular challenges faced by women working in these disciplines. The chapter responds to these challenges by building on the need for changes in thinking highlighted by thought leaders in the 21st century, to suggest a way forward for creating change that directly relates to the role of women in leadership in the discipline. The chapter is relevant for scholars researching gender equality and also for university leaders in developing strategies for adopting women in leadership initiatives in a changing educational landscape. It will also be of interest to academics within these and related disciplines as well as academics involved in the delivery of professional development courses for women in leadership.
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“I asked for the man in charge,” said Pascoe coolly. “Did you indeed?” said the woman in sympathetic motherly tones. “Were you perhaps shell shocked in the first world war? They let us women out of the kitchen now, you know, and we’ve even got laws to prove it.” (Hill, 1978, p.29)

However far women’s suffrage and economic integration may have advanced over the last forty years, struggles for equality in the workplace are ongoing, built on the historical positioning of women in societies. In the UK, for example, women over the age of thirty only gained the right to vote in 1918 (men were already entitled to vote at twenty-one) and the century since then is arguably a relatively short time, culturally and economically, for social change. It is therefore not surprising that the dominant majority remains reluctant to relinquish control into a fairer division of labor in most fields. Whilst there has been some progress, women in leadership positions across the corporate board remain outnumbered in 2018, and in higher education strategic initiatives have had to be introduced even in the last ten years to help redress the gender balance in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) and of the professoriate. Certain academic groups remain particularly intransigent. One such is Engineering.

Whilst the struggle for diversity in academic disciplines particularly steeped in tradition (including engineering) continues, the world around higher education is changing, and these changes, such as the evolution of digital communication technology, impact the delivery of education irrespective of the status quo. For women, this could provide new opportunities that the existing hierarchy will be less able to control. Over the last twenty years a digital revolution has occurred with the development of new digital tools, including for communication and monitoring, data analysis and digital fabrication. The integration of these tools into new systems continues, but even so, they are creating significant changes to business convention and customer interaction. These are demonstrated by examples such as the rise of music streaming services and share-economy businesses, for example city share-bicycles. The future of work, business organization and industry face a potential paradigm shift, and learning for the twenty-first century needs to adapt in anticipation. As Gore points out in his book The Future (2013, p.xv) “there is a clear consensus that the future now emerging will be extremely different from anything we have ever known in the past. It is a difference not of degree but of kind”.

These changes are difficult for any leadership in higher education to address, but it is particularly so where long-established academic disciplines have entrenched ideas and understandings. For engineering, thinking about the future will mean challenging the accepted practices of the past that inform and validate current educational norms and values. The past in engineering is solid for inveterate academics. Not so the future. This chapter presents an alternative perspective on the educational environment that women in engineering in higher education face in the twenty-first century, in light of the rapidly changing digital context. It provides an argument for a reversal in strategy for women in leadership positions in engineering, suggesting that rather than fighting for greater acceptance in this discipline, women are ideally placed to respond to the changing educational and professional imperatives, and instead lead the discipline in a new, more apposite, direction.

Key Terms in this Chapter

CDIO: A framework for engineering fundamentals within the context of conceiving, designing, implementing, operating.

Athena SWAN: Is an organization founded in the UK that recognizes advancement in gender equality.

Additive Manufacturing: Commonly known as 3D printing, this term refers to a range of technologies that build objects layer on layer from a 3D computer model.

STEMM: Refers to the extended scientific education focus to include science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine.

STEM: Refers to an education focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Megatrend: Is significant activities or opinions recognized globally as having an impact on attitudes, behaviors, and ideas over time.

Problem-Based Learning: Student-centered learning where student work on an open-ended project.

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