Does Fluid Power Have a Gender Issue?

by Alan Hitchcox
Mar 08, 2017

How many women do you know who work in the field of fluid power? I’m not talking about those who just work for fluid power companies, but actually serve in a technical capacity. I could name several off the top of my head, but the most well known—even internationally—is Dr. Monica Ivantysynova, Professor of Fluid Power Systems and Director of the Maha Fluid Power Research Center at Purdue University. I know of another lady who carries the nickname “Guru of Servovalves.”

I couldn’t find any studies or statistics about the number of women working in fluid power, but a study about women in engineering was conducted by Professor Brian Rubineau of McGill University, Montreal. Unfortunately, results of the study imply that some women are leaving the field of engineering because of a culture that does not take them seriously.

Rubineau and co-authors Carroll Seron (UC Irvine), Erin Cech (University of Michigan), and Susan Silbey (MIT) concluded that unchallenging projects, sexual harassment, and greater isolation from support networks contribute to women exiting from the engineering field.

Rubineau commented: “Although engineering programs have focused on reforming their curricula to encourage women’s participation, we are finding that social interactions outside of classrooms are contributing substantially to women’s negative experiences of the field. It is clear that engineering schools must broaden their efforts beyond the classroom to ensure they are not only attracting top female talent, but retaining it.”

The study followed 700 students from four schools—MIT, University of Massachusetts, Olin College of Engineering, and Smith College’s women-only Picker Engineering Program—during their four years of college and again five years after graduation. The study examined students’ voluntary diary entries and focused on:

• Interactions with other students in classes and projects

• College culture

• Future occupational and family expectations

“Many of the women in our study experienced blatant gender bias in their project teams and internships,” continued Rubineau. “Much of the hands-on aspects of engineering are treated as men’s work, with women relegated to more secretarial duties. This culture of sexism and stereotyping sidelines qualified women, who then often choose a different career path.

“A second source of this gendered discontent concerns the role of engineers in society. Women, more so than men, cite engineering’s potential for improving society as their motivation for pursuing a career within the field. But in their internships, women saw only lip service offered towards improving society. Disillusioned, these women are often inclined to change career path to find a better cultural alignment with their values and goals.”

These findings are unfortunate, and I hope this cultural imbalance is changing for the better. And there’s no reason it can’t. In the few European-based fluid power conferences I have attended, I observed a higher percentage of women participating in technical presentations than what I’ve seen in the U. S. The only exception might be those conducted by the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power. So let’s hope the culture of the CCEFP spreads throughout fluid power—and all of engineering, for that matter.

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