’Nuts and bolts and people’: Gender-troubled engineering identities

Title’Nuts and bolts and people’: Gender-troubled engineering identities
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2007
AuthorsFaulkner, W.
Secondary TitleSocial Studies of Science

Engineers have two types of stories about what constitutes ‘real’ engineering. In sociological terms, one is technicist, the other heterogeneous. How and where boundaries are drawn between ‘the technical’ and ‘the social’ in engineering identities and practices is a central concern for feminist technology studies, given the strong marking of sociality as feminine and technology as masculine. I explore these themes, drawing on ethnographic observations of building design engineering. This is a profoundly heterogeneous and networked engineering practice, which entails troubled boundary drawing and identities for the individuals involved — evident in interactions between engineers and architects, and among engineers, especially around management and design. Many engineers cleave to a technicist engineering identity, and even those who embrace the heterogeneous reality of their actual work oscillate between or straddle, not always comfortably, the two identities. There are complex gender tensions, as well as professional tensions, at work here — associated with distinct versions of hegemonic masculinity, with the technical/social dualism, and with what I call ‘gender in/authenticity’ issues. I conclude that technicist engineering identities persist in part because they converge with (and perform) available masculinities, and that women’s (perceived and felt) membership as ‘real’ engineers is likely to be more fragile than men’s. Engineering as a profession must foreground and celebrate the heterogeneity of engineering work. Improving the representation of women in engineering requires promoting more heterogeneous versions of gender as well as engineering.