“The guys would like to have a lady:” The co-construction of gender and professional identity in interviews between employers and female engineering students

Sophie Reissner-Roubicek


Gender and professional identity are intertwined particularly in professions where women are underrepresented, making gender identities and professional identities simultaneously relevant. A promising area for inquiry into identity construction (and one where the effect of actions to increase the proportion of women in professions such as engineering can potentially be observed) is graduate recruitment, a process designed to put novice professional identities to the test. This paper takes a social constructionist approach in exploring the discursive negotiation of female engineers’ professional identities and how these are co-constructed dynamically in interaction with gender identities in this important gatekeeping context. The analysis, which draws on examples from a dataset of 20 naturally occurring interviews between employers and final-year undergraduates at a university in New Zealand, focuses particularly on the interplay of gender in the necessary synthesis of personal and institutional discourses in constructing a professional identity. Ways in which gender is oriented to explicitly and/or implicitly in these gatekeeping encounters are shown to resonate with existing gender divisions (technical vs relational) in the androcentric professional context of engineering, undermining a pro-women recruitment stance. Central to the validation of professional identities by interviewers was the demonstration of “passion for engineering” but ways in which it was deemed to be demonstrated, such as through reasons for career choice and outside interests, were arguably gender-circumscribed. This further set of normative expectations, on top of the existing competency-discourse-driven requirement to fit candidates into prescribed categories, contributes invisibly to maintaining the homogeneous identity of the engineering profession. The tension between conflicting requirements for “difference” and “sameness” in the professional identities of female engineers is highlighted in a discussion of the ways gender is made relevant in the co-construction of these identities.

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