My friend Scott, a Socializing Engineers co-blogger and internet dude, recently posted this slideshow on his facebook page. I couldn't make much sense out of the slideshow at all*, but the link led to some discussion regarding the male-dominated culture of engineering and how it's unwelcoming to women. While I will agree that the fact that there are more male engineers in schools and the workplace is a barrier to entry for women, I vehemently disagree that it's the only one or the biggest one. So this post is about why I, having made it through an engineering degree program and now working as an engineer (albeit in the "project manager" corner of the profession), think there are so few women in engineering.
*One thing I did glean from the slideshow: the idea of making sure that women weren't put into groups without another woman in them. I would love to see this implemented as common practice in engineering courses where possible (obviously not possible if there is only one girl in a class or something).
#1 - It Starts Early
I read an amazing book a couple of years ago called Pink Brain Blue Brain that examines brain development in boys and girls from the womb to the teenage years. This book has informed most of my thoughts on sex and gender ever since. We treat boy babies differently than we treat girl babies, and that means their brains develop differently, exacerbating any actual, real differences.
The relevance of this is that boys are pointed toward things that make them good engineering candidates from a very young age—balls (hur), remote control cars, LEGO—whereas girls often don't get exposure to these things. Instead, they get dolls, kitchen sets, and colouring books. Boys' toys often involve spatial elements, applied physics, and construction. Girls play with things that are close to their faces and handled gently.
Obviously these are generalizations, plus there are so few children in my life nowadays that I have no clue what their toys are like for real. When I was a very little girl, I had a little toolkit that I loved, and I logged hundreds of hours building things in the sandbox. When my mom was feeling indulgent, I got to play with water in the sink, aka Fluid Dynamics 100. (I also had LEGO, but most of the time my sister and I just built people and played with them like dolls. Oops.) But as a group, boys get an earlier and more thorough introduction to engineering concepts than girls do. As far as I'm concerned, this is huge, because the more practical experience you have, the more confident you'll be in these areas later on.
#2 - Money Isn't Everything
I'm not sure if this point will be controversial or not, so I'm just going to blurt it out. Women aren't used to being breadwinners. And now let me elaborate.
For generations, men focussed on earning potential to support their wives and children, and women focussed on finding husbands to support them and their children. Fortunately, things are changing, to the point where I literally can't imagine being dependent on my hypothetical husband.
However, this sort of thing lingers. The STEM fields are often profitable, but they're also often short on work/life balance, and whereas men may still tend more toward lucrative options despite certain drawbacks, women don't necessarily share that compulsion. It's still commonly expected that a man will make more money than his wife, and unusual for a woman to make more money than her husband. With that in mind, a woman may be more likely to choose a different career that's easier on her family and social life.
I realize that this is all very heteronormative and also I'm not trying to say that women are expecting men to support them. What I actually mean is something closer to "women are not expecting to support men." This is my most tenuous point, though, so I'll just leave it at that.
#3 - What Is This I Don't Even
What exactly do engineers do? Do they drive trains? I challenge you to try explaining engineering, and the actual job that an engineer does, in one hundred words or less.
This is not possible.
Right now I'm working on a post that will hopefully sort of clarify what I do at work in a typical day. But engineering is a monster of a profession and engineers do all kinds of different things. Some engineers are project management types like me, some are consultants who do studies and designs, some work in industry and the public service, keeping processing plants going and making sure the lights stay on. Engineers are ubiquitous, but more than that, they're mostly invisible to the general public.
So let's say I'm a teenage girl who likes math and science. I have no experience with building things, or tinkering with engines, or much else, really. Will I be attracted to things like pharmacy, medicine, and accounting, things I see all the time on tv or actually in person in my real life, or will I go into "engineering," a mysterious field I'd never heard of until the career counsellor brought it up? Or let's say I have heard of engineering, because my uncle and my best friend's dad are engineers. But am I going to be more drawn to a field that I perceive to be full of young, made-up women, or middle-aged men?
What's needed here is mentorship, because it's much easier to see yourself in a role if you feel like the people who are already in that role are similar to you. When I was interviewing for my job, the interviewer was a young female project manager. My boss is a man, but his boss is a woman. Whenever I feel like I can't make it through something, I remember that those women did it before me, so I can too. In part this is silly, because I have the same training as all of my male peers, so of course I can aim to achieve the same things they can. But I'm somewhat apart from them, facing different judgements. This is where the male-dominated culture thing comes in, but it's also where female mentors are the difference between powering through and tapping out.
So How Do We Fix It?
Here's what got me drafting this post in longhand, in bed, in camp, instead of watching Game of Thrones like I'd planned. What can we do to get more women in engineering?
- Play catch with our daughters.
- Convince girls that engineering is their most reliable ticket to designer handbags.
- Repeat steps 1 and 2 until there is a critical mass of women engineers OR Create a tv series about sexy engineers.
- Sit back and relax.
But making engineering better for women is ultimately up to the women who are and who want to become engineers. We have to make engineering better for ourselves, not sit back and wait for the administration or professional association to do the things we hope for. The biggest gains are made by showing up. And then, if you're looked at askance, you work through it because you have just as much right to be there as anyone else does, even if they don't know it yet.
If engineering is something that you don't really care about, that's fine. But it's important for the people who care about engineering and who see its problems to fight for it. Things don't change by themselves, and if you've washed your hands of it, I'm not sure how much you get to complain.
The fact is that there are women in engineering, and there are going to be more soon.