Gender and technological pluralism: Possibilities and constraints in the engineers' toolbox

Maria Kristina Udén

Ph.D Human Works Sciences, M.Sc Engineer Mineral Processing and Metallurgy

Abstract: The contribution presents a study newly published in Sweden. Its purpose was to create insights about how the results of women engineers work appear. Very little is known about this. Another reason was to develop concepts relative to feminist research into the types of prob--lems with which engineersí work. The sources are interviews with women engineers and the M.Sc. engineering degree theses pub-lished by women at Lule University of Technology (LuTH) 1971-1993. The thesesí texts can be grouped into three categories, which refer to different dimensions of engineering practice. Five concepts can summarise the thesesís titles: artefacts, elements, change, optimisation and organisation. The first four are presented in an abstract form of language. The fifth, organisation, connects to specific circumstances. Four titles mention organisations that can be labelled either feminine or neut--ral. A larger reality is represented in the illustrations than other-wi--se in the theses. Among the theses there are new definitions of what technology îisî. But the possibility to prove as worthy of the degree and subsequently to make a career as engineer, rests upon highly developed organisational contexts. It is not likely that this can be reached outside technology-dense organisations. To understand how the meaning of technology was created at LuTH, attention must be paid to boundaries and connections, rather than to who has been there (at all) as student or teacher. The goal to make professional tools possible to intellectually grasp can be realised through processing engineering technological understanding towards a disciplinary pluralism.

Women engineers constitute a newly emerged group in technological networks, possibly carrying incitements for change in engineering practice. Therefore, how results of women engineers work appear and, in turn, impact upon society as a whole is a possible ground for discussing evolution of engineering tools (assumptions, systems of symbols, procedures). The possibilities for renewal of the engineer's toolbox, which allow the profession to meet the new requirements of the 21st century, are at focus.

In a Swedish study newly published as Ph.D. thesis (UdÈn 2000), the purpose was to create insights about how results of women engineers' work appear. Very little is known about this, although assumptions on the subject are manifold. Sources for the study were interviews with women engineers and M.Sc. engineering degree theses published by women at Lule University of Technology (LuTH) 1971-1993. Of these sources, MSc theses constitute a genuine and fresh material for research in the area of gender and technology. M.Sc. theses, being test and evidence of obtained profes--sional compe--tence, is an ideal source for information about the content of an engineering education and an identifier of technical competence. From the year of its opening in 1971 until 1993, a total of 2341 final theses were publis-hed at LuTH. Of these 469 had women authors, out of which 376 were written exclusively by women or groups of female authors. A substantially larger part of female students co-operated with students of the other sex, than is the case for males.

The theses' titles are especially interesting for research, as they present the contents, but also represent the authors and the departments. The titles "name" these people before an internal and external audience. Five concepts can summarise the titles; artefacts, elements, change, optimisation and organisation. Words for material and procedural artefacts make out the dominant part of the titles' presentations. But also what mankind has not made; earth, wind, fire and water (and the Nordic ice) is present. Change in different forms, and attempts to control change; optimisation are other major ingredients. These first four concepts are often presented in an abstract form of language. The fifth concept, organisation, connects directly to specific circumstances: technology intensive organisations mentioned by names, e.g. such as Volvo. A quarter of the titles and front pages include such names. A closer look at the bulk of organisations mentioned shows them as in the factual meaning of the words men's organisations, culturally masculine. The number of titles mentioning organisations or work--places that include women or the culturally feminine during the twenty years studied, is four. They were published in 1979,1987, 1990 and 1991 respectively, e.g. "Storage of outdoors equipment at day care centres" from 1991.

The picture that the investigations lead to is intricate. One issue that can evidently be put to trial by the study, is the gender pattern of the social institutions investigated. In this aspect the "neutral" or abstract language of the theses' titles function as social messages. Through the mathematical, graphic and metal artefacts that dominate, do the female LuleÂ-students' theses show signs of reinterpretations of femininity. Theses such as Steering gear for nose-wheel on airplane JAS 39, or Automated drilling and tunnelling: a field test, are not unusual as engineering theses. But as names of women's work, as identifications of women, they are reinterpretations of what a woman is. Personal independence and possibilities to govern one's own working conditions were strongly determinant for the interviewed women who decided to take up a technological education. They are largely content with how this aspect turned out. Still there are reasons to carefully ask what the conditions are, for reinterpretations to take place. There are limits for how "right" it can be for a woman to be engineer, which shows in different social situations. At the same time the number of contacts with women in society is infinitesimal in comparison to the contacts with men. This is shown by instance by the organisations that the women have actually co-operated with in their MSc projects. It has been supposed, or wished for, that women in engineering should bring a new style of action to the profession. A more humane and caring technology has been depicted as the result of the women's entrance on the technology scene. But the theses contents and the interviews, make it evident how the possibility to prove as worthy of the degree and subsequently to make a career as engineer, rests upon highly developed organisational contexts. It is not likely that this can be reached outside technology-dense organisations. For example mathematics, which is regarded as a mark of nobility as sophisticated engineer, has better possibilities to be used when a problem is well known. This is a state that takes a network of experts to arrive at. As a consequence, the topics excluded from the scopes of already technology-dense organisations and networks is not incorporated into "technology" as an automatic result of new groups being included in the professional body. This conclusion is strengthened by the weak tendency for use of technological competence in informal or less formal settings such as neighbourhood activities, family projects, clubs or social networks, that the study can trace among female engineers.

This brings to a general question of the possibilities to renew the engineers' toolbox. Among the theses, and not least in the illustrations, there are new definitions of what technology "is". This can be taken as signs that there is a technological pluralism present among engineers. It is interesting to see that a larger reality is represented in the front-page illustrations that appear in 40% of the theses, than otherwise in the theses. The unique trait of the front-page illustrations is that they are not supervised, that is; seen as part of the examination or in any other way as interesting for the university to superintend. The illustrations do not carry aspirations for prestige, as the titles do. This does open the possibility for personal expression and creativity. People, animals, nature, humour and outspoken standpoints appear in the illustrations, even though such mediations are strictly avoided elsewhere. But the unusualness of the unusual theses, and the institutionally more insignificant position that front-page illustrations have as compared to e.g. titles, signals exactly what unusualness and insignificance are prevalent, and that the issue is something out of what is really within "technology". The unusual cannot be regarded as a manifestation of the university's operations, but must be understood as initiatives of individuals. These initiatives could presumably take place and be manifested because of their low frequency (in the case of unusual theses such as those placed in feminine settings) or socially insignificant placement (in the case of front-page illustrations).

To understand what happens with the current engineering practice, attention must be paid to topical and symbolic boundaries and connections, rather than in looking at who has instrumentally executed the tasks. When a university of technology was opened in LuleÂ, the objective was explicitly to support and change a region with comparatively weaker economy. It is significant, that in the debate on development the assumption that Lule University of Technology could possibly have a positive impact on the local women's labour market and living conditions other than causing individual women to become engineers has not yet emerged. In accordance with theories on development of social practices and their symbolic systems, e.g. as presented by Pierre Bourdieu, that pronounce a symbol system's content and thus capabilities to formulate and solve problems as constrained by the practice within which it has been evolved, this is a consequential fact. >From the findings of the study it is apparent that the right of women to participate in the engineering education process has been officially accepted at Lule University of Technology as in the Swedish system for higher education generally. At the same time, it is also apparent that to succeed and be accepted as engineering students, and later as engineers, women are limited by social and economic circumstances, one of them being a lack of contact with women in society and women's concerns.