This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

The Social Engineer: Women Engineering Students' Identity Construction as Modern Engineers




Wittig, Ashley

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation


Education Foundation, Leadership, and Technology


Research has shown that students’ identity development is important for students’ retention in engineering (Madsen, & Holmegaard, 2010), but for women the cultural representations of the field can create a disconnect that limits their potential identities with engineering (Carlone & Johnson, 2007; Faulkner 2006; 2007; Goldman, 2012; Malone & Barabino, 2009, Tonso 2006). Engineering is considered a masculine field where the technical aspects of the work are the most valued (Faulkner, 2006; Faulkner, 2007). These cultural beliefs are a misrepresentation of the practice of engineering, which is both technical and social (ABET, 2017; Huff, 2014), but women can still be constrained by the available narratives and expectations that traditionally define what it means to be an engineer and a woman. Therefore, it is important to understand how women construct themselves against these overarching narratives. This study was framed through a feminist narrative approach to examine how women engineering students constructed identities within their major and how the ideas and expectations of traditional gender roles were integrated into those identities. The purpose of this study was to better understand how undergraduate women in engineering constructed their identities. Data were collected from open-ended interviews and the identity models of five junior and senior class women in mechanical engineering. These women were also in uniquely privileged positions. They had familial and community connections to engineering that provided them insider information, as well as important opportunities to understand and envision themselves within the field. Findings showed that the five women identified as social engineers, and situated themselves against two prevalent stereotypes in engineering: that engineers were nerdy people who could not communicate and that engineering is purely technical. In contrast to these representations, the participants felt the social aspects of their identities made them better engineers in the classroom and future workforce compared to their more stereotypical classmates. This portrayal of engineering switches the narrative by demonstrating how the social roles that have previously been feminized and devalued in engineering are precisely the characteristics needed to be successful in the field. The findings from this study present a different narrative of women’s experiences in engineering and show a potential shift in the field. Perhaps due to their unusually supportive background, the participants did not see a mismatch with being a woman and being an engineer. They felt that their social characteristics made them better engineers, and it situated them with the more modern view of engineering (Villanueva & Nadelson, 2016) as well as the actual practice of engineering (ABET, 2017; Huff, 2014) highlighting that the field is technical and social.