Marketing and communication of engineering

A number of years ago I made a study on how universities recruit students to computer and machine engineering, what messages they send out to potential students. Is there a reason why those messages are not so attractive to women? I also did a comparison with a programme that really recruits women: nursing.

The findings were that the engineering programmes tried an “add-women-and-stir”, approach, but the result was largely “add women” without really doing any “stir”. I.e. there were pictures of women who told how good the programme was, but generally the descriptions were quite different from the way nursing programmes marketed themselves. Bachelor engineering programmes often downplayed the academic content of the programme and stressed the connections to working life – in contrast to nursing, which gave a more detailed explanation of what the studies themselves actually entailed. It seemed obvious that the two different programmes targeted two different groups: young men who were not that interested or excellent at school and young women who were academic achievers. While both programmes often told about the importance of learning to communicate, the meaning of the word was quite different: for engineers it would be about putting forward one’s ideas, while for the nurses it was about collaborating with colleagues and educating patients. What I found striking was the frequent appearance of the word “responsibility” when the nursing profession was described and its almost total absence when engineering was described etc.

Just out of curiosity I’ve made some unscientific follow-ups over the years, just to see if things have changed. Largely they haven’t. Just look at the images: whose hands are displayed, who is active? A heading in one university’s webpage, beside a smiling young woman tells that ‘Josefin has always wanted to become an engineer’, while the next image, recounting a lecture by a visiting (male) star is titled ‘The nerd is the winner’.

But there have been changes, too. There are notably more women in the images. However, the ‘add-women-and-don’t-stir’ is still the main approach, as the texts have not changed to the same extent.  Most changes seem to have happened in descriptions of the working life after graduation: public sector and maintenance, work tasks that several graduates from these programmes will have, are lifted up as realistic and positive alternatives, instead of leaving them out in favour of the more flashy development and project leadership tasks in computer companies. However, it is still very seldom that I come across ‘responsibility’.

Of course, these educational programmes are male dominated and it would not be fair to make believe that they are not. The male domination cannot be changed by changing the marketing. Rather, if the programmes are to recruit more women and not only those who have ‘always wanted to become engineers’, it might be a good thing to reflect on what it is, not in the marketing of nursing, but in the programme itself, and the working life that follows, that attracts women, and set about making more profound changes. After all, descriptions of nursing programmes were attractive to both male and female upper secondary students – as long as they did not know it was the female coded nursing profession they were reading about.

Minna Salminen-Karlsson

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