Engineering is a field where—despite national and international efforts—women remain underrepresented. While many schemes exist to increase women's participation, few have considered how research foci, funding decisions, and project objectives impact women and men's proportional participation in research.
This case study analyzes how a shift in research priorities in a particular mechanical engineering lab led to increased numbers of women working in the lab. Women were drawn to applied physicist Andrew Szeri's lab when research came to focus on the fluid mechanics of gels to deliver female-controlled HIV microbicides. Increasing women's participation in engineering may require reconceptualizing research to include methods of sex and gender analysis in creative and forward-looking ways.
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1. The proportion of women in one mechanical engineering lab was significantly increased when research priorities were changed to focus on projects with direct potential to improve human health. At the same time, this change in priorities expanded research in the field of fluid mechanics.
2. Woman-controlled HIV protection is being developed in order to assist women in cultures where they may have less power to say "no" to sex or cannot rely on their partners to use condoms. This new technology represents an innovation that could help prevent the spread of HIV.
3. Understanding how sexual practices differ across cultures is further refining developments in HIV prevention. These developments could further help sub-Saharan women and also men who have sex with men.
Gendered Innovation 1: Increasing Womenâ€šĂ„Ă´s Participation in Engineering by Changing Research Priorities
Method: Rethinking Research Priorities and Outcomes
Analyzing Academic Disciplines
Gendered Innovation 2: Woman-Controlled HIV Prevention
Method: Formulating Research Questions
Gendered Innovation 3: Analyzing Factors Intersecting with Gender to Improve Microbicides
Method: Analyzing Factors Intersecting with Sex and Gender
Over the last several decades, the European Union and U.S. have invested in increasing the number of women scientists and engineers (Marchetti et al., 2010; Rosser, 2008). Nonetheless, women's participation remains low in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. This suggests that increasing the number of women requires more than programs focused on removing subtle gender bias from hiring and promotion practices, stopping tenure clocks, leadership training, and the like; such interventions are necessary but not sufficient. Increasing the numbers of women may also require "changing the knowledge" or reconceptualizing research to include methods of sex and gender analysis in creative and forward-looking ways.
Gendered Innovation 1: Increasing Women's Participation in Engineering by Changing Research Priorities
Andrew Szeri, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Dean of the Graduate Division at the University of California, Berkeley, increased the number of women in his mechanical engineering lab by shifting the research focus of his lab. Over the past decade, he switched his research topics from those focusing on applied physics to biomedical engineering and, in the process, his lab changed from a majority of men to a majority of women (see Method). As Szeri explains, "the mathematical methods (on which I rely heavily) haven't changed much at all. It is, rather, the goals of the projects which have. The goals of the research changed from understanding the physics of a problem to developing models that could be used to evaluate devices or treatments for medical conditions" (Szeri, 2009).
In making choices about research priorities given limited resources, scientists and engineers will analyze who benefits from a particular project in terms of wealth and well-being, and who does not. What are the differential effects of this work on women and men of different social and cultural backgrounds?
The social origins and consequences of a particular research project may be one factor determining scientists' and engineers' interest in that project.
In changing the research focus of his lab, Szeri saw an unintended consequence: The proportion of women working in his lab increased. More research is needed on cases where changing research directions strongly influences who chooses to participate in that research.