No Place for a Lady

Based on a conversation or four that I've had with friends and family lately, there seems to be some interest out there about what it is that I actually do for a living, and my feelings about it, and that sort of thing. So, since this is my blog, and my gimmick is that I'm an engineer with zero qualifications whatsoever to talk about books, I'm going to try to write a little bit more about what being an engineer means to me, what I do at work all day, etc.

For this first post on the topic, I'm going to go a bit abstract. About a month ago, I discovered that the enrollment of women in engineering at my alma mater was nowhere near as high as advertised back when I was in school three years ago, or when I was going to various recruitment events as a high school student. As far as I knew, female enrollment in the college was somewhere around 30% while I was there, with some disciplines being better (chemical) or worse (mechanical). Whereas an annual report from my professional association revealed that it was actually only 20% overall last year, meaning that three years ago it was probably even worse. My discipline, civil, is right around the average.

I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before or not, but I went to an all-girls Catholic school for six years, from grade 7 to 12 (inclusive, obviously). Thanks to a bunch of factors, not the least of which was the fact that I was a shy, awkward teenager, the four dozen or so girls I went to school with were basically the only people I knew in my city. I had very rare interactions with the opposite sex in the form of my friends' friends, my parents' friends' kids, and also, mercifully, the internet, but otherwise my social circle was overwhelmingly female. By the time I made it to university, I didn't know anything about boys. They were a kind of abstraction that I understood in standup comedy terms, plus teen loner cynicism. Remote caricatures, in other words, and I was also pretty positive that there was no chance I'd ever actually get to know any guy ever in a meaningful way.

(My Catholic girls' school experience is a post for another time, but I'm literally 100% less bitter about it than that paragraph makes me seem. I think maybe I could mine a post about half-forgotten teenage girl psychology out of it, too.)

Anyway, of course I ended up choosing one of the last male strongholds in post-secondary education as my degree of choice. Mainly this happened because of my dad's encouragement. I'm sure there are parallel universes where he's an engineer himself, but in this one he's a tradesman and has been doing various construction and maintenance work since he was 17. I didn't really know what engineering was, beyond "problem solving," but that was good enough considering I didn't have any idea what else to do, having abandoned my childhood dreams of "figure skater" and "princess" quite early on. So I trotted happily out of my convent school and onto the university campus, where I learned, for better or worse and under considerable emotional duress, a lot of math and science, and also that the male of the species are people too.

Or, tl;dr, I went from a very female-dominated environment directly into a very male-dominated one, and the experience was difficult and formative and blah blah really unique blah I'm very glad to've been through it.

Out of university, things got even more male-dominated when I started working in construction, a rough and tumble business that's no place for a lady. At my company, only about four out of the 27 people who share my title are women (i.e. 1 in 7 or 15%; the reason I don't have exact numbers is that some of the names are ambiguous and I don't know all of the other people who work here). When I include everyone that falls under the project management umbrella, that number remains pretty stable at 18%, but I think you can see it's not exactly balanced. The last time I was on a job site, I was literally the only woman working on the job with a crew of about forty guys (not the only one on site, just on that particular job, which I hope is a clear distinction to those outside the industry). Women are still so rare on construction job sites that we turn heads wherever we go. I like to joke that I've never actually seen any guys working because they're too busy watching me walk by, but that's not very far from the truth.

By now, if you're still reading, you're probably wondering what I'm trying to get at with all of these numbers.

Well, I have two different and conflicting reactions.

First, I find this kind of work environment really stimulating, even if "stimulating" should sometimes be read as "really, really, really stressful." I'm always conscious of people I deal with at work making snap judgements about me based on the way I look (e.g. boobs!) or sound on the phone (e.g. like a child). I'm conscious, too, of the fact that thanks to my inexperience/occasional airheadedness, I can't necessarily prove those snap judgements wrong all the time. But I feel good about the fact that I'm here at all, and I value the distinctness of my experience, not to mention the challenges of the job itself. Maybe everyone automatically assumes I'm a secretary of some kind the second they step into a site trailer, but if I have any influence on changing those assumptions, then I'm glad to be able to do that. My job definitely isn't perfect, but it has a novelty to it, for reasons including and beyond my non-traditional role, that I'm not sure I could find anywhere else and that I know I'd miss.

And in case you're wondering, I do recognize that as more women enter the profession, the experience that I've had will gradually be lost. I'm not sure that this is relevant, though. While I personally really benefitted from being in a male-dominated environment, it's more important to me that the field is challenging. The experience I've had isn't just valuable to me because lol now I'm one of the guys, it's because I have education that qualifies me to work in an area that conventional wisdom would like to deny me. I want to discuss engineering on its own merits, like whether the work is rewarding, or if it's something you can do without having to raze your personal life.

Second is less positive. Engineering is a profession that I care about even while it seems to disappoint me at every turn (this could be another post all by itself), to the point where I'm upset that it's so male dominated but I don't want to do anything about it. I can't recommend it on those merits I just mentioned because that's not how it is at all. I wouldn't wish the bad parts of this job on anyone, so I don't want to encourage any unsuspecting young people, including girls, to get into this line of work, and would maybe even go so far as to discourage them from considering it. There are huge structural changes required before I'm prepared to suggest to anyone that engineering is a good choice of career, regardless of what gender they are. I'm sure that there are some companies or places where engineers do cool, socially responsible, innovative things that they feel good about, while maintaining reasonable work/life balance, but right now those are few and far between.

This makes me so sad. For the mathematically minded, or for me at least, there's a certain joy in working out solutions to practical, numerical problems (as opposed to abstract problems, which I tend to struggle with and then address with blunt force and middling success). I've gotten that feeling from engineering, in school and sometimes even at work. The strange social forge I went through may have turned me into a kind of odd person, but nevertheless a person that I really like, and I can't deny that engineering has been a big part of that. The fact is, though, that the trappings of the job overwhelm that joyful solving feeling most of the time. I wish that I could feel good about doing recruitment, and go out and talk to girls in schools about a thing that I love, girls who are maybe scared of boys the same way I was and can't imagine standing toe to toe with them as peers in a field that nobody on the outside ever sees or hears much about (no matter how much proselytizing happens within the profession). I recognize that I'm in a position to be a role model, I just don't feel good about the role I'd be modelling. Engineering is a thing that I'm doing right now, and not something that I utterly hate, but that doesn't mean I think anyone else should do it.

I just don't know what the solution to all of this is. How do you encourage more girls to get into engineering if the ones who are already engineers don't feel comfortable mentoring them, maybe to the point of active dissuasion? How do you change the profession so that more women engineers would be willing to take on mentorship roles, or even just so that all engineers have a better quality of life? Is this something that needs to be left up to a foot vote, or should engineers be trying to change the profession from within? I've been struggling with these kinds of questions for a while now, and I just don't have any answers. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. I think a lot of things! (I'm in agreement with much of your post, but of course am coming from a different perspective). As someone who has gone through an engineering program only to switch career tracks (if I can call it that!), I often feel that I'm not doing my education justice. Especially because having women represented in all sorts of professional roles is important to me, I sometimes wonder if I should be "doing my part" in the engineering world, too. Ultimately, for me, though, it's a matter of what's going to make me happiest.

    I think we need to mentor girls so that they're willing to consider engineering/science/math fields as options, but not as the ONLY options, too. I've often found there to be a prejudice that engineering, because of its intellectual rigor, perceived difficulty, and utility to society from a fairly obvious standpoint, is also thought of - unquestioningly - as a better path. Your post really highlights how we need to be willing to address more than just "there needs to be more women!" and I really appreciate that. Quality of life for all engineers should be the end goal, taking into account that more gender equality is a part of that goal.