Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Women and Engineering: The Great Debate (Part 2)

Following up on Women and Engineering: The Great Debate (Part 1), I recently had the pleasure of corresponding with a female engineer (several years older than I) who had this to share:

" ... I had a good experience in engineering. [My boss] was a big part of that, and very supportive of me and my work. I was lucky. Without such a supportive manager, my experience could have been very different.

I probably experienced more discrimination than I realized. Definitely there were a few instances I can recall, but in general, but I was always reticent to blame anything on my gender. If there was a problem, I tried to figure a way around it, regardless of the cause ...

My first day of work at one job, my boss sat down with me. The first words out of his mouth were he couldn't understand why a woman would want to work. He shook his head back and forth as he spoke. He wasn't being mean. He just couldn't understand it. I later discovered I was paid significantly less than my male counterpart, so I found a new job … and left. I told my boss and the department manager about it. I later heard the department manager cited my leaving as an example of why not to hire a woman, because they won't stay in a job for very long. He neglected to mention the pay inequity issue.

Even then, going back to my point about not blaming my gender, my take on the situation is this: Was I paid less because I was female, or was it because I could have done a better job of negotiating my salary? It was probably both, but I focused on the latter, because I could learn from it and do better next time, which I did ..."

Two things struck me as I read her words. First, I was impressed with her attitude toward work in the face of gender discrimination. She simply believed in herself, pressed forward, and moved on past a bad situation. I hope, in a similar situation, that I would do the same. Second, I marveled at the inappropriateness of a boss making comments like that.

But have things really changed in the intervening years? How are female engineers treated today?

In Stopping the Exodus of Women in Science, an article in the June 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Carolyn Buck Luce, and Lisa J. Servon summarize the findings of their recent study of women in the technology sector:

" ...Our research findings show that on the lower rungs of corporate career ladders, fully 41% of highly qualified scientists, engineers, and technologists are women. But the dropout rates are huge: Over time 52% of these talented women quit their jobs ... So why do women leave science, engineering, and technology careers? ... First and foremost, the hostility of the workplace culture drives them out. If machismo is on the run in most U.S. corporate settings, then this is its Alamo ..." (emphasis mine)

Kathleen Melymuka, of Computerworld, interviewed Hewlett in her June 16, 2008 post entitled Why women quit technology careers. Hewlett flatly denies that the primary reason women leave the workforce is to start families. Although work-life balance is a factor, Hewlett found that it is low on the list of reasons women are leaving the technology sector. Melymuka quotes Hewlett as follows:

"We found that 63% of women in science, engineering and technology have experienced sexual harassment ... demeaning and condescending attitudes … off-color jokes, sexual innuendo ... colleagues, particularly in the tech culture, who genuinely think women don't have what it takes -- who see them as genetically inferior. It's hard to take as a steady stream ..."

Well, at least the women who stick it out are paid well, right? Wrong. In 2006, the American Association of University Professors examined the salaries of women professors as compared to men. Looking at colleges and universities across the board, women are only making 80.7% of the salary of their male counterparts in similar jobs.

Unfair? Definitely. But are women also limiting their options and perpetuating these stereotypes without realizing it? Could you be an engineer and not know it? Gena Haskett notes some common misperceptions about female engineers -- including this gem -- in her blog post entitled Are You An Engineer?:

" ...Now you might not think that you have engineering tendencies but if you have every applied clear nail polish to a run in pantyhose, if you have stapled a hem or have 10 alternative uses for duct tape you might be a latent engineer or inventor ..."

And keep in mind the findings of a new study, conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that looked at differences in math performance based upon gender. After studying data from 7 million U.S. students, the scientists came to this conclusion: There were no gender differences in math performance.

Let’s all take a step forward from these stereotypes and let our present and future engineers – of both genders – work in peace.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mama Joules has a new place to call home!

By the time you read this, Mama Joules and Itinerant Cryptographer will have moved into their new place! Unfortunately, the computer has to go into a box and our internet will be down for a bit, so we'll see you again in a few days.

In the meantime, here's some food for thought ... What are your favorite science-based movies? What aspect of science do they represent? Do the characters portray realistic depictions of scientists or do they fall into Hollywood's "weird science" stereotypes? (I have favorite movies that fall into both categories!) I'll check back with you in about a week to share my picks and see what you think!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Simulations from Physics Education Technology

Recently, I found a science gem through Laura of The Crayon Virtuoso (thanks, Laura!). Science Simulations is a series of physics-based game-like simulations from the University of Colorado at Boulder's Physics Education Technology program. Once you can download these programs, you can modify the conditions of the simulation to see what happens. I especially enjoyed shooting a bowling ball and a buick out of a canon (complete with the "boom" and resulting splat!) in the Projectile Motion simulation. It took a few adjustments, but I finally hit the target. There's also a page with nearly 300 Teacher Ideas and Contributions to accompany the simulations. Have fun!

If you liked this post, you might also like:

--Website of the Week:
--What's in a bowling ball?
--Website of the Week:

[Update: 3/17/09 -- Checked links & added suggested posts]

Friday, July 18, 2008

Website of the Week: Alice

Looking for an easier way to teach or learn basic computer programming? Try Alice, a free program distributed by Carnegie Mellon University. Alice is "designed to be a student's first exposure to object-oriented programming." The original version is designed for high school and college students; there's also a modified version geared for middle school students.

With the original version of Alice, kids can create movies and simple video games; the drag-and-drop design makes syntax errors less likely and easier to correct. The Storytelling Alice version is more popular with young girls, according to research conducted by its designer, Caitlin Kelleher. This version of Alice allows young programmers to design and view an interactive story with 3-D characters.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bringing the seashore home

Photo credit: Brian Lopez,

Are you headed to the seashore this summer? Be sure to take some of your beach-combing treasures home for later.* Driftwood makes for an interesting table topper. Seashells, pebbles, and beach glass make good starting materials for creating a mosaic. You can also glue a few of these items to a picture frame or a wreath base to make a sea-themed wall hanging. String some seashells with holes into a necklace. Put some sand in a jar and layer some seashells and driftwood on top to create a miniature shoreline. Or create your own 3-D field guide by labeling the your items and mounting the pieces for display.

Your finished craft project can be a visual reminder of the time that you and your family spent encountering wildlife on a shoreline nature hike. It's a nice way to re-visit the seashore and invite a little of that coastal ecosystem into your home.

* Always check to make sure that your seashells don't have someone living inside them! As a child, I accidentally took home a hermit crab and, unfortunately, he died due to my ignorance about care. Also, some beaches and natural areas have restrictions on how many and which items can be taken from the beach. Be sure to check the rules before you collect!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Tail Clouds

Wall Cloud with a Tail Cloud
Photo credit: NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory

I was watching the news the other night and saw a picture of a tail cloud. As an amateur sky-watcher, I was very interested, because I had never seen anything like it before. To me, a tail cloud looks kind of like a horizontal tornado, forming just above the ground. Storm chaser Mike Hollingshead of Extreme Instability does a better job of explaining it -- with great photographs -- on his Storm Glossary/Info page. I now know what a "Beaver Tail" and the "Bear's Cage" are, too!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Website of the Week: Roadside America

Are you headed out on a trip across the U.S. this summer? Consider a stop by Roadside America, which bills itself as a "guide to uniquely odd tourist attractions." Want to see the World's Largest Thermometer? Head to Baker, CA. Interested in space aliens? Visit Roswell, NM, home to the International UFO Museum and Research Center. Perhaps bugs are more your style? Head to the Insectarium in Philadelphia, PA or the Insectropolis in Toms River, NJ. Whatever your off-beat interest, Roadside America is sure to help you find your destination!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Just for Fun: Tomorrow is National Slurp Day at 7-Eleven®!

Head on over to a 7-Eleven® convenience store tomorrow (7/11/08!) to enjoy a free Slurpee® as part of National Slurp Day! From their website:
Customers can pour their favorite Slurpee flavor in colorful, 7.11-ounce “Birthday” cups throughout the day, while cup supplies last.
(Thanks to MA for the tip!)

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Is it time to clean your mental closet?

We are in middle of moving here at Mama Joules' and let me tell you, it isn't pretty. I think the dust bunnies are conspiring with the ants to take over the place! It's no fun sorting through old papers, books, clothes, and more, trying to decide what to leave behind and what to take with us. But cleaning house is so important. Taking stock of what we have -- and what we believe in -- keeps us focused on what's really valuable.

Do you have any dated beliefs that might not stand up to current scientific thinking? I can think of a couple of things that I learned long ago about about outer space that have since been proven (or shown to be) false:
The nine-planet solar system is no more. Since Pluto was recently downgraded to dwarf planet status, we're now looking at a solar system with only eight planets.

However, new planets have been found outside of our solar system!

And several planets, not just Saturn, have rings around them.

So, I ask you today, what scientific beliefs are you keeping stored up there in the recesses of your mind? Should any of them be updated or thrown out?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Nathan Sawaya: LEGO® Artist

My friend LD pointed me toward this CNN article -- LEGO artist building bigger career -- about Nathan Sawaya and his nifty LEGO® creations. Sawaya's work is currently on exhibit at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center in Connecticut, with plans to exhibit across the U.S. and into Canada (Visit The Art of the Brick™ Museum Exhibit for more information).

Check out Sawaya's unique sculptures in the Stamford Museum's Exhibition Spotlight or visit Sawaya's homepage at The Art of the Brick™. Although I like his life-size humanoid sculptures the best, I also was intrigued by the world, T-Rex, and PC Mag Computer.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Fourth of July!

Celebrate your freedom today! Feel free to be a science geek! ;-P

Photo credit: Leon Brooks,

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).