Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Women in engineering, redux

I faithfully read three trade magazines from their respective professional societies--Physics Today from the American Physical Society, ASME Magazine from The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and Advanced Materials and Processing from The American Society of Materials. I can't recall ever reading an issue of any of these three journals that did not include at least one hand-wringing reference to the dearth of women in engineering and science.

Me, I've never felt particularly disadvantaged as a woman in engineering, aside from the occasional being mistaken for an administrative assistant or secretary. But I've certainly never been a victim of sexual harassment or discrimination, thanks to the work, of course, of the women of prior generations who blazed the trail for me. In fact, I've sometimes wondered whether my admission to the Berkeley College of Engineering as an undergrad, and Santa Clara University as a master's student, with less than stellar grades (although quite outstanding SAT and GRE scores), was a consequence of both institutions' continual efforts at encouraging women to go into engineering. So in that way, I've been unfairly advantaged.

How I've felt personally in my working life, with the high ratio of men to women in almost every place I've worked as an engineer, has been generally good. Honestly, I've never been comfortable with large groups of women. They tend to talk about topics that don't interest me. However, I certainly would not feel comfortable if I were the only woman when I looked around. So... the going rate of about 1 in 5 mechanical engineers being women has been supremely comfortable for me, especially since the other women tend to have a similar personality type to my own, so we have gotten along quite beautifully.

However, yesterday I had a pretty big dose of sexism hit me from an unexpected place. My neighbors, the Bs', youngest daughter is graduating from grade school, so I was looking on the internet for gift ideas. On a lark, I entered into google "gift for 12 year old". I was quite shocked to find that not only did the web site hits divide the kids by gender, but even google's most frequent searches divided the kids by gender. Check it out:

Below I will borrow some of my own words from an email to G:

Boys got recommended really cool things like robots and toy rockets. Girls got recommended stuff like "make your own jewelry" kits. I mean, there are plenty of little girls who would love that, and plenty of adult women who make jewelry as a hobby or for a living, so I'm not saying it's a bad gift. I just think it's really sad to start pigeon-holing kids by gender so early. The problem that I see is that it denies not only free exploration to the children; it also denies the children's gifts to a field that may not have crossed their mind as something to try, if no-one pointed it out to them as an option. For example, I think that I'm a pretty good engineer (at least I am told so by the people that I pay to flatter me). If had had been pigeonholed only into "girly" things when I was younger, what on earth could I contribute to the world? I am positively dreadful at creative arts; I couldn't make pretty jewelry to save a life; where would I be? Stepping back, doesn't it make you wonder how many women are stocking shelves right now because they failed as actresses or ballerinas, when they might have made fine engineers, but never had a thought to try?

In hindsight, I am very lucky to have had a very outstanding high school physics teacher who didn't distinguish between his female and male students, as well as a mother and elder sister who, despite sticking quite rigidly to other gender stereotypes, were quite delighted when I informed them that I'd like to be an engineer.

And there but for the grace of God goes Arvay...


mdr said...

Yes, I am proud of you as an engineer. My father was a civil engineer too.

Rena said...

I am shocked and amazed that you haven't run into problems in the engineering field. Maybe MEs are diff than EEs or CS people. You heard about the Dell conference, right...?

Arvay said...

Wow, those are some pretty blatantly ugly comments. I don't think that would happen in the US, where sexism is much more subtle. I am blessed with being dense and slow on the uptake, so I might have missed a lot of more subtle sexism. This has freed me to do my job without fuming about the idiot in the next office.

b said...

Yes because you know how feminine your sister is. She is the ultimate woman stereotype!

Arvay said...

I was referring to gender stereotypes of "women shouldn't change tires" and "women shouldn't split wood". I meant no offense.