Women in technical professions – the importance of role models

16. May 2018 item Redaktion

How the right support can help break down old-fashioned hierarchies and stereotypes. 

It goes without saying that women are just as capable as men in technical working environments. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a prime example of how targeted encouragement and personal support are key to women entering the engineering job market. Taster events and tailored advice offer a clever way to dispel the reservations that many women and girls have about working in science and technology when they leave education. Last year, an impressive 49.5 % of all mechanical engineering students at the institute were women. This just goes to show how important female role models can be – and Fabiola Calderón couldn’t agree more. Much like her American colleague KJ Cocke who we introduced two weeks ago, Calderón works at item and speaks about her personal experiences for the Advancing Women Engineers initiative. Born in Mexico, Calderón works as an industrial engineer at item Oeste México and was greatly inspired by her own role model.   

Declining interest due to a lack of role models? 

Calderón points out that the attitudes and gender clichés that children face early in their lives have a significant impact on their future career decisions. “Gender stereotypes are still going strong. Boys learn that tools are for them. Girls, however, are expected to play with dolls,” Calderón says, “women are still struggling to tackle these misconceptions. Men are brought up to think mechanical engineering is a ‘man’s thing’, so to speak.” 

A comprehensive study conducted by Microsoft in 2017 asked 11,500 women and girls between the ages of 11 and 30 in 12 European countries about their attitudes to STEM subjects. The results confirm Calderón’s opinion. The study revealed that girls are most interested in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) at the age of 11 but their enthusiasm quickly starts to wane by the age of 15. When asked why, most participants cited a lack of female role models in STEM subjects. 

The importance of role models and teachers for women in technology

More than half (57 %) of the young European women that Microsoft surveyed said they would be more likely to pursue a STEM career if they had a female teacher who encouraged them to learn about technical topics. Calderón highlights that female role models and teachers have perhaps the greatest influence on students in STEM subjects. But she also admits to having her own moment of doubt: “Sure, at a certain point I also asked myself whether the path I had chosen was really the right one for me.” 

A Mexican designer named Jorge Moreno motivated her to carry on. Calderón was greatly inspired by Moreno’s decision to stick by his design philosophy while also taking account of social issues and focusing on the problem at hand. And he did so in a fun and creative way. His dedication inspired Calderón to pursue her passion for mechanical engineering. She is convinced that initiatives targeted at young women hoping to break into male-dominated fields are of the utmost importance when it comes to the fundamental questions women such as Calderón are confronted with. “If women feel at home in these areas of work, they can achieve just as much as men can,” she says.  

There’s no clear-cut definition of success 

It’s a big step for a woman to pursue a career in mechanical engineering. But what happens after she makes that decision? A study by National Public Radio in 2014 paints a clear picture of the situation in the United States – almost 40 % of the female engineering graduates surveyed later left mechanical engineering or never even entered the field. Calderón believes a working environment that offers women clear opportunities to further develop and progress is key to improving the current situation. 

Last but not least, she believes that it’s important to find your own personal definition of success early on: “Success can be defined in many different ways. I think I’m still yet to achieve my biggest success. Women should do whatever they have a real passion for. That way, they won’t be focused on individual milestones. After all, success isn’t just a goal, it’s also a journey.” 

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