Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Women and Engineering: The Great Debate (Part 1)

There’s no argument that there are currently more men than women working in the field of engineering. However, the reasons for this inequality are hotly debated. Since parity has been reached in other scientific disciplines, such as medicine, some argue that the reason women are not as well represented in engineering, physics, math, and computer science must be that they are not as well suited to these fields as men. In other words, it’s not discrimination keeping women at bay – it’s a difference in aptitude.

To say that I disagree with this line of reasoning would be putting it mildly. I personally feel that women in the sciences still experience a tremendous amount of discrimination. I graduated high school – despite good grades and a supportive father who always told me I could do it – with the belief that I just wasn’t smart enough to be a scientist. I can remember going on job sites as a young environmental inspector and purposely not wearing make-up and pulling my hair into a ponytail so that I wouldn’t be treated as date material. I know what it’s like to enter an office where every other scientist is a good old boy and the only other women on staff are in the clerical department. (Which brings up another point: Just having similar numbers of men and women in a given field does not equal parity.)

Are women less suited to engineering than men? Elizabeth S. Spelke, of Harvard University, tackles this question in “Sex Differences in Intrinsic Aptitude for Mathematics and Science?: A Critical Review” in the December 2005 issue of American Psychologist (download the .pdf file here). She notes that previous research has indicated that women are less likely to major in mathematical disciplines, and that mathematically gifted women tend to choose different careers than men. Is there a genetic difference between the cognitive abilities of the sexes to account for this? Possibly, she concedes. However, she writes:

“Nevertheless, the wealth of research on cognition and cognitive development, conducted over 40 years, provides no reason to believe that the gender imbalances on science faculties, or among physics majors, stem from sex differences in intrinsic aptitude.”

So, if women aren’t less suited to engineering than men, are they discouraged from entering or staying in the field? Have things changed at all since the women’s liberation movement of the 1970’s? I’ll explore this topic again soon in Women and Engineering: The Great Debate (Part 2).


Julia Khouri said...

My experience as a civil engineer in the environmental field was a positive one. After getting over the initial period of feeling I had to "prove myself" to my (mostly male) coworkers, I felt that I was respected as an engineer and generally treated very well. I was given a lot of responsibility as a young engineer managing projects, etc. Also, as time went by, more and more young female engineers joined the company until it was pretty well-balanced, gender-wise. One amusing experience happened when I was assigned to work at a construction site as the site engineer. The site superintendent was on the phone with an electrician who was coming to the site, and he told the electrician that his colleague Julia (me) would give him some driving directions. The electrician responded "OK, put your secretary on the line". Funny how he assumed that a female at a job site must be the secretary! :-P The superintendent and I had a good chuckle.

CricketB said...

My Chem Eng class of '91 was 54% female. I left the field after four years of work. Another left after 10. The only other I kept in touch with is still in it. I'm not sure how that leaving rate compares to males, but I know the overall rate for both genders is high -- just look at all the P.Eng.'s doing other things.

In my case, I didn't like the stress. My husband enjoys his job and made more money, and we'd always agreed one parent would stay home with the kids, so when the time came it was me. (Actually, the stress was preventing the kids, which was another reason I left. Never tell a woman it's because of stress, but be ready to laugh with her when looking back at the dates.)

It was a very male building. 80 men doing dirty, sweaty work in the back. Male VPs and salesmen. Women managers and secretaries. The secretaries thought I got special treatment because I was allowed an ergonomic keyboard -- I was the only one who asked! And conflicting advice on whether to dress up a bit more.

In the back, I was accepted as "young thing". I ignored the first whistle as I walked by (probably started or blushed, but tried to ignore), and out of the corner of my eye saw a fatherly figure go over to talk to him. Only took a week before the worst of the posters came down as well.

After four years, I never made it past "innocent young thing". Partly it was me -- that mode was pretty ingrained, and still is. Partly it was my job. QA is either right in on everything, or kept out of the loop -- can't let her know what's really going on. I was the latter.

Dad's electrical. He had lots of female R&D colleagues. He said you could tell them from the secretaries because they rarely wore skirts and heels. It was similar when I worked at Ontario Hydro head office in 1990. There were lots of much older female engineers there, in jobs appropriate to their experience, including my boss.

I find engineering is a hard job to get back into, or do part time. Doctors can always fill in at a clinic. Researchers in large organizations can come back to a different project. Then again, my job combined fields, and I never gained enough confidence in any of them to actually say I was in the field.

Meanwhile, there's my father, who's sense of humour is at parties to say, "Two kids, boy and girl. Engineer and social worker," and let them step into it.

jublke said...

Thanks, julia and cricketb, for sharing your stories! :)

julia, I hope that your experience in engineering represents the future of the field. Some of the older women engineers that I've spoken to didn't have such positive experiences when they started out. I'm glad that your office was accommodating.

cricketb, your comment about your dad introducing his children reminds me of when I was pregnant and in graduate school. Whenever Itinerant Cryptographer and I went to parties, people always assumed that my husband was the student. I guess they'd never seen a pregnant graduate student before! I like to think that I broke down stereotypes for a few people.

CricketB said...

In Chem Eng at Waterloo in the late 80's female grad students were expected to reproduce on the way through.

jublke said...

Hmm, CricketB. I'm not sure that's an improvement either (since it seems to go along with the expectation that the woman isn't as serious about her work once she's pregnant) but I have heard some graduate school friends discuss timing their pregnancies to fit into a certain time period in their studies, so I can see where it came from. I'm guessing that the new pregnant grad student stereotype might be more prevalent at some universities than others (as people watch and think, if she can do it, I can do it).

That said, as a mom, I certainly understand that having kids changes priorities. But it doesn't make me any less of a scientist. In some ways -- as I play in the mud, watch the frogs in my yard, or feed the birds with my boys -- I think parenting makes me more of one.