"It Takes a Certain Kind of Girl to Be in Engineering": The Rhetorical Construction of Undergraduate Women's Engineering Identities

Mary McCall, Purdue University


In the last 25 years, little progress has been made within business and technical writing research towards challenging the belief that workplaces and classrooms are gender neutral—by default, white male. This need mirrors the call for more studies within engineering education that analyze gender through an interdisciplinary, intersectional lens. This dissertation responds to and integrates calls for diversity by identifying the rhetorical ways in which female engineering students construct an engineering identity as they negotiate the academic and professional boundaries of their field through coursework, internships, and co-ops. Specifically, it uses a qualitative approach via semi-structured interviews with six upper-level female engineering students to explore their professional identity development. Results from these interviews indicate that my participants shared some of the identity negotiations adopted by female professionals within the literature review, but their tactics leaned more towards imagined future careers and less towards trying to be “one of the guys.” Secondly, my participants expressed the need to rhetorically respond to stakeholder needs, but also frequently referred to the “awkward engineer” stereotype. And lastly, they both sought and participated in opportunities for (peer) mentoring, but commonly sought advice from often from managers/workplace colleagues than (male or female) faculty members. These findings in turn support pedagogical practices in business and technical communication and engineering education fields by helping instructors across both disciplines learn more about how undergraduate women build identities based on narratives about what truly counts as “engineering” skills. With this knowledge, instructors can more effectively work towards creating inclusive classrooms that resist stereotypes of the engineer as a technically competent, socially deficient (white) male and instead welcome more multi-faceted engineering identities.




Sullivan, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Womens studies|Technical Communication|Rhetoric|Science education|Higher education

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