Is Engineering Sexist?

Okay so firstly I just want to say that obviously everything I say about this is just my personal view and is based on my own experiences. Also, my experiences are actually very limited. I spent four years studying engineering and was very immersed in that world during that time. I also did vacation work at multiple engineering companies in those years, but I have never formally worked in the industry. So I can 100% say that I don’t have all the information. But with that being said, my personal experiences so far have definitely painted a pretty distinct picture of the industry. They have also impacted my choice to not involve myself in that world again…maybe ever. 

Most people are painstakingly aware of the gender imbalance in engineering. It is slowly becoming more equal and for some departments, like the Chemical Engineering department, they are already quite balanced. However, I chose Mechanical Engineering and I’d say that the class was maybe a quarter female, at most. When I was applying, I actually expected it to be worse and was pleasantly surprised by how many girls were around. I’m sure the guys were too…sorry, bad joke 😉

When I applied, I was quite nervous about how I would be treated by my peers. I almost expected to be treated like an idiot because I was going into the degree being absolutely clueless about engineering. I had never held a drill before, I didn’t know all of the names for tools and in general, my baseline knowledge was pretty much below zero. This proved to be challenging for the whole four years if I’m honest, but it was mostly the first year that made me realise how much I didn’t know. What made it harder is that there were plenty of people around me who knew exactly what the lecturer was talking about, while I was sitting there thinking: “For the love of G*d, what the hell is a washer?”.

For a long time, I thought of myself as disadvantaged because I hadn’t grown up helping my dad repair things around the house. I hadn’t peered over his shoulder when he was fixing the car, my parents hadn’t bought me remote controlled cars, etc.

Looking back on those thoughts, I can definitely admit that I was being incredibly self-centered, ungrateful, and was just feeling sorry for myself for something that wasn’t even valid. If my only “disadvantage” in the classroom was being a woman, I was already more advantaged than almost everyone in that room. Also, when I started to look at things more clearly, I realised that I had been stereotyping the men. Not every man has had the inclination or even the opportunity to grow up around tools and look inside a car. There were probably other men in the classroom also thinking “what the f**k is a washer?”.

In general, I think the baseline knowledge was a bit skewed in terms of gender but it was a lot less skewed than I expected. It seemed to me that baseline knowledge was way more affected by things like socioeconomic status.

Going into engineering, I wasn’t sure how the men in the class would treat me. There was a part of me that feared that I would be excluded in group projects or would straight up not even be let into a group. But I have to say that all of my worries were for nothing because over the whole degree, I can’t think of even one instance where it felt like I was being treated differently because of my gender. The lecturers were a bit of a mixed bag in that regard, but when it came to my peers, I always felt welcomed and respected. So if you’re reading this and you’re someone that I studied with, I really just want to say thank you. Neither the men nor the women ever made me feel excluded. I don’t know if that was the case for everyone, and unfortunately, it probably wasn’t but I personally can’t complain.

After being so shocked at how much the gender thing just really didn’t phase the people in my class, I was kind of hoping that my vacation work would be similar. And sh*t was I wrong. I expected the real-world engineering environment to be less progressive than the university (mostly because of the age gap) but I was still hoping that the engineering mindset had followed other professions with their progressions towards more equality. 

When I started my first vacation work job, it kind of felt like the whole world had been moving forward and engineering was just sitting there, frozen in time. At my first job, I was one of three women in the entire building. The other two were secretaries. Shocker.

It wasn’t all bad and I actually highly respect the man who owns the company. He ran a tight ship and never made me feel out of place. However, the workshop space was a completely different story. Don’t get me wrong, the men there were incredibly friendly and went out of their way to welcome me. They had so much patience with me, it was actually quite heartwarming. But they had grown up in a very different time to me and they had been living in an environment where certain comments were considered perfectly normal.

I distinctly remember on one occasion, one of the men was showing me how they sharpened their tools on the grinder. Part of my vacation work criteria was learning how to do these things myself so I went at it, copying how he had done it. At that moment, another man walked through the door, saw me sharpening a tool on the grinder, and with a huge smile on his face, he said: “don’t break a nail!”. I was a bit shocked and didn’t really know how to respond so I kind of just smiled and gave a nervous laugh. Inside I was screaming but I didn’t want to start a whole thing when all of those people had been so kind to me. They genuinely didn’t have any bad intentions behind any of their comments.

And I really wish I was joking when I say that about 10 seconds after that guy left, another one walked in and said the exact same thing. Like almost word for word. What are the f***ing chances? Well apparently in that environment, they’re quite high.

As much as I know that their words weren’t intended to harm, they definitely hurt. To be reduced to such a stereotype was extremely diminishing. If I was concerned about the state of my “fragile” nails, I wouldn’t have chosen this degree. Also, why is it considered a wussy, female thing to worry about your nails? Have you ever actually broken off a nail? It’s kak painful. Honestly, everyone should be concerned about breaking their nails.

From there, I spent some time at a different company and it was honestly hard to watch the dynamics there. At that place, I was the only female on the property and again, the workers were extremely welcoming and patient with me. But the way that the manager treated the men was cringe-worthy. He chose to scream orders rather than lead by example. He was never explicitly rude to me but people can communicate a lot without saying any words if they want to.

My last vacation work company was actually amazing. It was a similar vibe to the university environment where if you were just a decent person and you worked hard, no one cared about your gender or anything else really. However, that company was run by a woman. I’m not saying that only the women-run engineering companies will be up to date on equality, but I do definitely think that it plays a part. You’re way less likely to be stereotyped, underestimated, treated like an idiot, etc. in a company where the director has dealt with that sh*t herself. Talking to her about her journey to becoming a business owner in the engineering industry was extremely inspiring but just as aggravating. After hearing about what she had gone through to get her company to where it was, I realised that all of my uncomfortable situations that I had experienced at other companies didn’t even scratch the surface of how bad it was.

I remember sitting in a client meeting with her, just hearing one of the guys absolutely grill her on her report. This woman has her PhD in that field. She sure as hell knows what she’s talking about and to see that met with men poking, trying to find some way to undermine her was extremely angering. She held her cool and answered all their questions to the point where they realised that there was actually no way to catch out someone who knows their sh*t that well. You may be thinking that they would’ve grilled the person on their report even if it was a man and maybe you’re right. But that’s definitely not how I personally read the situation. Honestly, just seeing that play out was exhausting.

And I’m sorry to say that that interaction wasn’t even the half of it. I really don’t know how she’s done it for so long or how she continues to do it. I think that was the experience that solidified my desire to get away from engineering in general. I don’t want to spend my life fighting to prove myself every goddamn day. I know that my very few experiences are not representative of the whole industry, but at the same time, I do think that my experiences are indicative of what a lot of the industry is like.

I’m sure I could find a company run by either a man or a woman where the employees are treated well and sexism isn’t something that you worry about. But I think that they are pretty rare. I could be wrong, and I’m happy for someone to tell me that it’s just my experiences that were unpleasant and they actually had a very different insight into the industry. I would actually love for someone to tell me that they had a better time than I did. Not that my time was absolutely horrible or anything like that. But it was enough for me to see that the engineering industry was not a place that I would feel generally very welcome in. At least that’s how I feel about the mechanical engineering industry. I think that other engineering groups are probably very different.

So do I think that engineering is sexist? Well, yes and no. I think that things are always changing and we are always moving forward. I really do believe that there are parts of engineering that are extremely progressive and create an environment where everyone feels welcome, regardless of gender. However, I do also think that there is a big part of the industry that is incredibly ugly and harsh. It is saturated with people who are regressive and have outdated mindsets. The few things that I mentioned weren’t even the full story but if I was to write about every engineering situation that made me feel “less-than” because of my gender, we would be here for days. And lastly, I do want to say that even though I think that engineering has a sexist aspect that needs to be dealt with, I also think that engineering isn’t addressing other issues that are actually more important than just the gender issue.

I would love to hear what you think about this. Have you experienced similar things? Do you completely disagree with me? I know that some people don’t feel comfortable sharing in the comments below but if you do feel comfortable, I would really love to hear your opinion on it. 


  1. Shante

    Thank you for writing this very balanced piece. In my brief stint in Chem Eng you’re right, the department was more balanced with regard to the number of males to females but when I told people what I was studying, they usually assumed I was going to go into the makeup industry… so even though the number of females studying the degree may be higher, the imbalance remains…

    • Katherine Pannell

      Thanks for sharing your experience <3 I guess we have a ways to go in all the engineering departments

      • Alyssa

        Nice piece Kath! Thought I would add my experience:

        Where I work now, although generally everyone is fairly welcoming, there is still some casual sexism. I’m a Mechatronics engineer, and am oftens inhibited from doing the “more masculine” mechanical side of things. Very often, colleagues will comment on my appearance, and the women (although there are few) tend to be worse in this regard. There is a strong sense of gatekeeping, and that overt femininity is in some way unacceptable and distracting. I remember once a colleague saying something about me “exciting the men in the office” when I was wearing something I felt was fairly appropriate for work.
        In that regard, I found my university colleagues far more accepting and welcoming. Never there did I feel that my appearance or gender changed others’ perceptions of my ability (not with anyone I interacted with).
        Once, though, I remember a Women in Engineering poster being vandalized with the words “Feminism is Cancer”. I was furious – it says to me that there are pockets of extreme sexism hiding in these apparently progressive and accepting environments, that there are people around, that I maybe interact with, who do not think I or others like me belong there.

        • Katherine Pannell

          Hey Alyssa, thanks so much for your input! I don’t really know how to respond to your experience because I find myself so infuriated by how these people treat you and women in your position. But also, I know that getting angry doesn’t really change anything. All I can really say is that I’m inspired by your strength and I hope that somewhere down the line, it gets a little bit better. And as for the poster incident, I think that’s a really important aspect to bring up. The fact that there are pockets in the “progressive” environments that still insist on clutching onto old mentalities is saddening. However, the only hope I can really have from that is perhaps the fact that they felt the need to hide and vandalise in secret. And that small difference of feeling the need to hide their identity from their sexism, or even knowing to an extent that what they’re doing is wrong, is still a step up from the casual and very visible sexism shown in the work environment.

  2. Malcolm

    Gee Kath, I really wish I could say that engineering is the exception. But I can’t. I do think that the more balanced the gender mix in a work environment the less likely you are to experience overt gender discrimination, or simply expressions of (un)conscious bias. So the demographics of the industry work against it.
    Things are improving I think and in my world of management consulting there are explicit examples of clients treasuring the opinions of female consultants as much as the males, sometimes more I think. Not that this comes without effort though. I would say that, in my observation, what is key is a healthy self image. Those women who are not afraid of their opinions get heard. On the flip side though, the ones who are on a crusade or hostile in holding their position, get discounted. A delicate balance I guess.
    I enjoyed reading your piece, actually more than that, I thought it well written 😊

    • Katherine Pannell

      Hey dad, yeah I do agree that the mix in a work environment can impact the level of discrimination, and as much as I do think that the industry is starting to see more females, I’m not sure that those hardcore engineering companies are ever going to have equal numbers. So then it’s a question of why do women need numbers to be treated fairly? Probably not a question that either of us can answer ourselves but I do think that in a situation where numbers aren’t an option, we need something else that makes the change. And as much as there are industries, like engineering, where women feel less welcome, there are also going to be industries where men feel less welcome. So I think both need to be considered wherever you are.
      Also, I agree that there is a delicate balance between those two, and that balance affects how both men and women are treated. However, I do just wonder about whether the men have a little bit more leeway with that “balance”? It often seems to me that a woman who is firm on her beliefs is named hostile much quicker than a man who is firm. Thanks for the input 🙂

  3. nick b

    I really enjoyed this. Good views on both parts of the argument and its cool that this is something to be open and honest about because its evident in peoples experiences. I found that in my first year vac experience there was a noticeable difference in the way the men treated women (i was doing vac work with another female engineer). Similar comments like ‘breaking a nail’ and ‘ be careful with that’ were definitely used more frequently when the workers spoke to her. However, I do feel like there are again two sides of this because these comments were more evident in the workshop rather than the ‘office’. So i think there is a theme with the hands -on, practical, ‘workshop’ aspect of female engineers that is distorted in the engineering profession, as many of the male engineers are in the same position as the female workers and not knowing what the f*ck a washer is (me included).

    I also liked your comment on how it felt like some engineering firms are stuck in the past with old views and outdated balances within the workplace but i guess that might just be another theme of engineering workshops being stuck in old ways. I share similar views with you about ever going into the mechanical engineering profession again, due to its outdated forms and undesirable working environments however I do feel like there are companies out there which we haven’t experienced yet through our first and second vac work experience that have a contemporary, evenly fertilized playing field for both men and women in the engineering field.

    Lastly i find it also very strange that there is only a scratch on the surface when it comes to sustainability, future livelihood, restoration and impact that our courses in Mechanical Engineering contain. ITS OUTDATED!!

    • Katherine Pannell

      Hey Nick, thanks for the comment. Yeah those subtle comments seem to be very common and it seems as though they kind of imply a cluelessness associated with women. As if we can’t possibly understand that workshop machinery is dangerous. And on the flip side, there seems to be an assumption for the men that they just automatically know what they’re doing when that isn’t always the case. And I think that lack of guidance for the men can actually be quite dangerous. It’s weird that in a workshop scenario I would almost prefer to be stereotyped as inadequate as a woman rather than overestimated as a man, because at least then I would have someone paying proper attention to the fact that I haven’t worked with the machinery before. Either way, the whole approach is a bit messed for both genders.

      Yeah there are definitely people out there that

    • Katherine Pannell

      Hey Nick, thanks for the comment 🙂 Yeah it seems as if both genders are getting a bit of the short end of the stick with hands-on work. Because on the one side, there seems to be a treatment of women in the workshop that implies that they have no cooking clue what’s going on. When in reality, the women are perfectly capable of learning how to use the machinery without this constant assumption of stupidity and inadequacy. But on the flip side, it appears as if the men are often just expected to magically know what’s going on in a workshop environment. In a way, I actually think that’s worse. If I had to choose one of the two, I’d rather have someone teach me as if I’m a complete idiot than skip steps and be too casual about the learning process so that I end up injuring myself. So really, neither treatment is a good approach.

      And I definitely believe that there are some companies out there that are taking the industry on in a new way. I guess, I just wish there were more of them.

      And I really love how you’ve brought up the courses as well. I know it’s a difficult balance when teaching new engineers because in order for them to effectively enter the engineering industry, you need to have taught them the basics of what the industry uses. But also, that approach doesn’t encourage new engineers to challenge the norms in a healthy and productive way. I’m not saying that we must scrap all the advancements that previous generations have made and flip everything on its head, but I definitely get the impression (both from studying and vac work) that the current engineer’s definition of innovation is literally just improving the efficiency of something that has existed for years. I think there is a lot to be said for the wisdom of the older generation in engineering matters, but I think that it’s taken too far to the point where it’s completely overbearing. And any discussions around sustainability are literally crammed into a one-semester course in your last year as if its an afterthought rather than a priority. We spent almost an entire semester analysing a coal power plant and while I can see how that is still extremely relevant, especially in South Africa, it was still really disappointing. Shouldn’t the fresh minds be shaped to tackle the difficulties of taking on new ideas instead of being taught to chug away at old ideas over and over again? I know there is a lot about why the courses are laid out the way they are that I may not fully understand, but I still think that we could be doing better than this. It’s almost as if making it to the end of the degree with a fraction of your imagination still intact is a miracle.


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