Being Female in a Male-Dominated Area of Study

Estimated Read Time: 6-8 min

TL;DR: I am a woman, and I study and conduct research at the intersection of several male-dominated fields: engineering, economics, and applied statistics. At times, people have suggested that my gender would interfere with my ability to succeed in these subjects. In this post, I: (1) address my personal experience with sexism in my work; (2) argue sexism is the driving cause of gender disparities in STEM & economics, and suggest reasons why this is a problem for the development of these fields; and (3) question why activities and traits commonly associated with femininity are frequently considered weaker/less than more masculine traits.

This post will focus on the U.S. context and my personal experience, not on global trends.

I have always identified as female.

I have also often been interested in hobbies and subjects that are male-dominated. In university, I chose to study engineering, a heavily male-dominated field where I studied at Purdue University 1 and across the U.S.. Although it was obvious there were fewer women than men in many of my classes, it wasn’t until my last year at Purdue, when I started applying to graduate programs, that I was made to feel at a disadvantage because of my gender.

Professors cautioned me about the challenges of being a female PhD student in engineering2. They warned me of the difficulty of the classes I’d have to take (even when they knew I was graduating a semester early at the top of my class). Reminded me of the increased challenges of “settling down” and having a family as an academic (would they raise the same questions to men?). Told me that, as a woman, I would have to learn to be more confident to succeed (the most confusing comment to me since I only began to lose confidence after their prejudices were voiced).

A part of me took these comments in stride, as genuine, well-intended constructive criticism, but the sexism underlying their remarks was hard to ignore. I felt uncomfortable at best, and belittled at worst.

Now, I’m a PhD student at the Johns Hopkins University. My PhD is based in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. I am concurrently pursuing a Master’s in Applied Mathematics and Statistics, and I work with a research group of economists. All three of the fields I’m associated with (engineering, applied maths, and economics) are male-dominated.

Being in a minority in my area of study because of my gender, I have become increasingly interested in understanding:

  1. Why are there less women in my area(s) of study?;
  2. What are the consequences of these gender disparities?; and
  3. How can I best support women in under-represented fields? 

The most naive question underlying all of these issues is are gender disparities in various subjects a problem at all?

From an economist’s perspective, the under-representation of women in certain fields would not be a problem if it was a result of “relative ability or innate preferences”.

There are some (like James Damore) who believe this is reality. Damore was fired from Google last year after publishing an internal memo in which he claimed “biological” factors, not sexism, were largely responsible for the under-representation of women in the tech industry. Citing scientific research, the memo states that, on average, women are more interested in people (rather than “things”) and have higher levels of neuroticism (high anxiety/lower stress tolerance), which Damore suggests may make them less suitable candidates for jobs in the tech industry.

While Damore’s memo makes reference to scientific articles, the research he cites is cherry-picked to support a preexisting bias. More reliable meta-studies suggest: “when it comes to abilities, attitudes, and actions, sex differences are few and small”.

Further, research generally suggests that when there are differences in interests between men and women, they are not biologically determined, but rather a product of social conditioning and pervasive stereotypes about the gender binary.

Concluding that gender gaps in fields like economics and STEM are a product of sexism, and not biological differences, we can then further explore why these gender disparities a problem.

It has been shown repeatedly that a lack of (gender) diversity hinders progress and intellectual development. The Economist recently cited research that suggests women in economics have different opinions about topics like regulation and minimum wages than their male counterparts. A systemic skew towards a “male” perspective in economics has significant implications for “policymakers and others  looking to academic economists for analysis, advice, or indeed wisdom”.

Further, the Economist notes that “because people research things based on their experiences, greater representation of women in the field would change it in a number of ways. For one, it would take gender more seriously.”

Representation of women in engineering is important for similar reasons: they provide a different perspective on the problems engineers aim to solve.

This is part of what makes Damore’s argument unstable. Even if women do, on average, care more about “people rather than things” as Damore claims, why is that necessarily considered a “bad” thing (i.e. weaker quality) in software engineering? Why would you not want that diversity of perspective?

This leads into the question I find most important to answer: why do we assume that typically feminine activities and traits are weaker or less than typically masculine qualities?

In The Economist, Rachel Glennerster, the director of the MITs JPAL research group questions, “As a society do we assume things are easier if there are more women doing them?”

Why do we not value women’s experiences and opinions in the same way we do men’s?

I think most of us do have this (unconscious) bias. Even many womenAlthough I know my gender has no role in my ability to complete my work successfully, it is something I still have to remind myself of consistently. I am just as capable as the men that surround me in lecture halls, meetings, and conferences.

In her book “Feminism is for Everybody”, bell hooks defines feminism in the following definition.

“Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. (…). Practically, it is a definition which implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult. (…). To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily  understand sexism.”

To end the gender disparities requires much more than just promoting summer camps for young girls interested in STEM and establishing support networks for women already working in male-dominated fields3.

It requires ending sexism.


  1. In my specific department at Purdue (environmental and ecological engineering), the gender ratio was an even ~50/50, but across the Purdue College of Engineering as a whole, women represented only a quarter of the students. Many of my classes took place outside of my specific department.
  2. Although I had several female professors in the engineering department during my studies at Purdue, all of the professors making these comments were male. This is also not to suggest that all, or even most, of my male professors made such comments — almost all of my professors were consistently supportive and made no remarks about my gender.
  3. These are obviously important resources to support women currently in these fields, I am just suggesting this is not the “solution” to gender disparities in STEM or other fields.

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