The Real Reasons for the Low Proportion of Women in Mechanical Engineering

By | January 27, 2023

How MIT manages to get as many girls and boys enthusiastic about studying mechanical engineering. And why that requires a strong will.


Hardly any other discipline fails so obviously in trying to get more women excited than mechanical engineering. There are more and more women in engineering, in Germany only one in ten mechanical engineering students is a woman. The situation is similar in the USA: Only 13% of Bachelor students in 2015 were women.

It can be very different: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has just announced that almost half of its mechanical engineering students are women. In fact, it was 49.5% of all mechanical engineering students. And this is no accident.

The interest in mechanical engineering is there

Three MIT scientists wanted to find out why the mechanical engineering institute is so extraordinarily successful in recruiting female students. Kath Xu, Dawn Wendell and Andrea Walsh interviewed employees of the institute and the admissions office. Her study shows that the high proportion of mechanical engineering students is the result of profound structural changes.

The study shows that there are at least as many young women who would be interested in studying mechanical engineering as there are young men. But they are dissuaded from their desired career in a variety of ways.

Counteract the flaw of the male domain

One of the scientists’ findings was that gender inequality already begins before enrollment. That is why the regulatory agency has started to polish up its own image and address women directly. The popular opinion was clear: mechanical engineering and the corresponding MIT institute were considered male domains, although around the year 2000 a third of the enrolled women were women.

The staff used blogs to draw attention to the fact that public opinion was misleading and that there were women on campus. Students began to report on campus life and their learning content. In addition, the staff increasingly invited young high school graduates to campus weekend, a kind of open day at the university.

Provide an insight into the world of mechanical engineering

In addition, MIT started a real recruiting program. Schoolchildren from 11th grade can try out and learn for four weeks on campus. In a summer academy, the potential mechanical engineering students attend lectures, get to know the institute’s laboratories and work in groups on their own projects.

Because the mechanical engineering institute does not suffer solely from a lack of young women, the program is offered together with the institute for electrical engineering and computer science.

Professors attract young women

Meanwhile, the MIT Mechanical Engineering Institute can reap the fruits of years of work. The employees use the balanced gender ratio as a recruiting tool. As admissions director Stuart Schmill says, many women on campus promote the university’s positive image among young women. And vice versa: If you hardly have any female students and professors on campus, it will be difficult for you to win over young students.

Former director Rohan Abeyaratne remembers the reactions of the students after Anette Hosoi, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, was appointed to the institute’s management. “I remember the large number of female students who came to their clinic shortly after their (Ms. Hosois) appointment.” At the time, he realized that he had to hire more female employees at the institute if he wanted to get more female students interested in his subject.

Hosoi himself pointed out to the scientists that this is not just a role model. The students wanted to know what their prospects on the job market would be. In the USA and Germany, the prospects for mint jobs are good, and wages in mechanical engineering have been at a high level for years. Hosoi himself came to MIT in the 1990s via a large women’s initiative. At that time, like many colleagues, she received a call asking to apply for a position at MIT.

Twenty years of catching up

Twenty years have passed since the first major promotion for more women at MIT. This was how long it took the university to balance the proportion of women and men among mechanical engineering students. “In order to achieve equality of thought, you need sustainable commitment and conscious strategies,” explains co-author Walsh. Without the support of the other institutes, without continuous awareness campaigns at their own university and public relations projects, the number of female students in mechanical engineering would not be nearly at the level at which they are today.

It is time for universities around the world to think about the hidden discrimination lurking in their systems. In any case, the potential for more women in mint courses is there.