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Sunday Spotlight #4

This week's spotlight features two master's students, Jillian Henderson and Sydney Van Engelen, who are doing research in order to better the engineering experience and livelihood of women in engineering. They have been studying the results of a survey regarding how sexism in a predominantly male field specifically affects women using both qualitative and quantitative responses. They cover how these affect the culture of engineering, gender stereotypes, and self-image/identity.


Sydney van Engelen, Jillian Henderson: The Subtle Ostracism Faced by Women in Engineering: Psychological Effects of Learning in a Predominately Male Field

Having both completed their undergraduate engineering degrees at Queen’s University, Sydney van Engelen and Jillian Henderson have experienced, first-hand the effects of learning in a predominately male field. Both Sydney and Jillian graduated with a BSc’ in Biomechanical Engineering and are currently pursuing their Master’s degree in Collaborative Biomedical Engineering under the supervision of Dr. Claire Davies. Using the results of a survey distributed in 2019 by Dr. Deena A. Salem and Dr. Davies, Jillian and Sydney analyzed the results to identify the challenge faced by female students that contribute to inequity, specifically here at Queen’s.

The initial survey was distributed within the Applied Science and Engineering faculty at an accredited Canadian university in 2018. The survey pinpoints how sexism in a predominantly male field specifically affects women using both qualitative and quantitative responses. While the results were not incredibly shocking, the report provides concrete proof that the gender discrepancy in engineering exists and is bigger than many people believe.

The research paper regarding the initial survey results can be found in the link below:

Using the initial survey from 2018, Dr. Salem and Dr. Davies altered and distributed the survey to all undergraduate and graduate students in engineering at Queen’s. The survey consisted of 17 multiple choice questions and four open-ended questions. They received 372 survey submissions, 60% of which were female. The multiple-choice results were analyzed using excel and the open-ended responses were analyzed using NVivo which codes certain keywords into themes then Sydney and Jillian use the results to formulate their discussion. From the survey, they obtained three main thematic areas, including culture, gender, and personal.

The built environment on campus like the lack of rental options for women’s steel-toed boots and attitude associated with the heavy male presence contributed to the cultural theme. Attitude refers to the feeling of being overlooked and dismissive comments that lead to negative experiences, limiting female student success. Twelve comments made by females specifically mentioned how male peers are dismissive when even the possibility of sexism was suggested.

Gender themes are the usual female stereotypes and lack of representation. Women are more often given non-technical tasks like secretarial jobs during meetings and report editing and formatting to “make things look pretty”. Lack of representation in FEAS is clear, as the FEAS faculty is only 20% women.

Both culture and gender themes lead to the personal theme. These themes influence female students’ sense of belonging and feeling of imposter syndrome which ultimately results in students facing subtle ostracism in educational environments. In survey responses, female students described themselves as “stupid”, “inferior”, “not earned my place” and “imposter”.

Their research found that female students in engineering tend to experience more negativity than their male peers. It proves that microaggressions done through actions and verbally, even if unintentional, leads to feelings of discouragement and a lack of sense of belonging. Sydney specifically mentions language and word choice, “Understanding how to use supportive language in group environments and in teaching can facilitate safe participation.”

Moving forward, students and professors can be better informed on microaggressions and how to hold their peers accountable. They hope that their research reminds people to reflect and rethink their methods and words, “I hope that professors and students start to notice when others are being spoken over and uplift those voices whenever they can, as everyone deserves to be heard.” (Jillian)

Jillian and Sydney hope that their research opens important conversations surrounding sexism in education and the workplace. Particularly in engineering, the engineering culture must be discussed and re-evaluated to ensure it is inclusive for everyone.

They hope that their research can also help women in engineering cope with their experiences. “I hope that our research lets girls know that they are not alone in these experiences. They didn’t hear what their peers said wrong or take it too personally. [You] aren’t weak when hurtful comments get to [you] because it adds up and it is not ok”

Both Jillian and Sydney hope to conduct another survey, as gender is only one element of diversity. They hope to include factors such as ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and much more. Regardless of whether this is possible within their time at Queen’s, they know there are other ways to improve and promote EDII and will always advocate for women in STEM.

Jillian and Sydney will be speaking at the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering (ONWiE) Summit in November 2021 and hope to have their research paper “The Subtle Ostracism Faced by Women in Engineering: Psychological Effects of Learning in a Predominately Male Field” published by the end of the year.

The report comparing survey results at multiple universities can be found here:

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