A central question in engineering education is why women, despite comparatively good grades, leave engineering programs at higher rates than men. Team projects are often proposed as a solution to this attrition problem on the assumption that women will respond positively to the social interaction and cooperation that such projects promote. Unfortunately, there is some reason to suspect that team projects might accelerate rather than halt attrition: Women frequently report negative team experiences that make them question their place in the discipline.
While previous research has looked at some of the major problems women encounter on teams, our study focuses on perceptions of small, everyday exchanges in order to understand how basic assumptions about what is considered “normal” influence women’s team experiences. We chose to focus on everyday exchanges because we believe that individuals may have more opportunity and ability to influence small-scale interactions than they do larger and more visible expressions of prejudice. If women could make small-scale changes to their daily interactions, they may be in a better position to confront larger systemic biases in engineering culture.
We surveyed 522 undergraduates, both in engineering and other disciplines, about their perceptions of six short transcripts showing student team interactions. Each transcript showed a member of a team complaining about some minor aspect of the project or class. We focused on complaints because these are common interactions, open to interpretation, and in our culture, often associated with women. Half of the transcripts showed complaints that exhibit masculine communication styles (e.g., self-promotion, direct criticism), and half showed more feminine styles (e.g., self-belittlement, indirect criticism). In addition, we created two versions of the survey in which the genders in the transcripts were flipped: Thus, half of the surveys used the name “John” with the first transcript, while the other half used “Jessica.” This manipulation allowed us to see if the gender of the speaker rather than the actual words spoken influenced respondents’ perceptions.
Our findings show that engineering males were more likely than other groups to draw negative conclusions about speakers who engaged in self-belittlement by admitting to difficulties or mistakes — particularly with technological issues. These men were more likely than others to perceive such speakers as incapable, whiny, and insecure. This impatience with speakers who admitted vulnerabilities extended to cases in which the self-belittlement appeared to be strategic — such as conceding one’s own weaknesses in order to help a teammate “save face” or using an “I-statement” to soften criticism. This trend was most pronounced among students majoring in mechanical and computer engineering and least present in bioengineering and industrial engineering, the latter two being disciplines with comparatively high levels of female enrollment.
The good news in our findings is that while male engineering students were less tolerant than others of female-typical speech styles, they were just as intolerant when the speaker was male as when the speaker was female. Changing the gender of a name associated with a particular speech act did not influence how it was perceived. Thus, this study suggests that women have some control over perceptions: Something as simple as curbing tendencies to admit weaknesses can benefit them.
We also found that while engineering men stood out in their perceptions of certain female-typical behavior, other groups found the more male-typical behavior troublesome. Across the board, survey respondents seemed most bothered by speech acts that showed aggressive self-promotion.
Based on this research, engineering educators might coach female students to avoid self-belittling discourse and teach all students to avoid aggressive displays of self-promotion. Such coaching might not only help women and other “at risk” groups fit into an engineering community but might also improve the interpersonal skills of all engineering students.
Joanna Wolfe is an associate professor of English at the University of Louisville. Elizabeth Powell is assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Martin. This article is adapted from “Biases in interpersonal communication: How engineering students perceive gender-typical speech acts in teamwork” in the January 2008 Journal of Engineering Education.