Sunday, January 23, 2005

Women in Engineering

There has been a lot of talk about Larry Summer’s comments about women in science and math last week. Being a woman in engineering, I thought I might weigh in.

I majored in electrical engineering partly because my father is an electrical engineer so he encouraged it. I was also interested in computer programming and played with electronics kits and Legos as a kid. Though programming and logic circuits were my primary interests, I wanted to have a broader background in case I didn’t like programming as much as I thought (I did, so I am, but I also have the background needed to understand the systems I’m working on). As a kid, I got along with boys better than I got along with girls, so being in a male-majority field didn’t bother me. I also tend to put less emphasis on my social needs than a lot of women probably do, so working in a field of introverts that doesn’t necessarily require you to interact with a lot people outside your field (like medicine and law do) was also not an issue. So that’s where I’m coming from.

To me, there are three things that account for the small numbers of women entering science and engineering: ability, preference, and comfort level. Ability is a natural weeding factor – if the math is too complicated or the work requires that your mind work in a way that it simply does not, it will be much more difficult to succeed. Preference is a self-weeding factor – you may be perfectly capable of doing multivariable calculus in your head, but you might find history or English lit to be more interesting. Comfort level is a clash of culture, self, and nature – if you are naturally included to be more comfortable around members of your own gender and you enter a field whose culture is dominated by the opposite gender, you may chose to go somewhere else.

Ability. The first and most discussed factor is ability. Let’s face it, people. Men and women are different! Entire books have been written on the differences between men and women. Talk shows makes billions of dollars harping on it. We just need to understand how and why they are different to understand why women are underrepresented in some fields. Males have many more outliers (on the low and high end) in the area of intelligence. So the most intellectually challenging fields will have fewer women. Now, I think that fact that women tend to get better grades in school while boys do better on standardized testing shows that a lower IQ can, to an extent, be overcome by other factors such as work ethic. That may actually be a cultural thing working for some women. These women may feel they have to work harder to prove themselves capable and therefore end up out-performing their intellectual equals. Of course, other women who are perfectly capable may be discourage by the feeling that have to continually prove themselves and change fields.

Preference. However, even if you assume that only the women who are as smart as or smarter than the average male entering that field go into said field, that does not explain why only 20 percent of engineers are female and why, among the disciplines, they are going into biomedical, civil, and computer engineering but not electrical or mechanical engineering. Also, outside of engineering, women are going into law and medicine, which are arguably just as difficult. I think women tend to prefer fields that feed their need for social interaction. Engineers may work in teams, but doctors, nurses, and lawyers interact with a larger variety of people and human interaction is part of their job description, not merely a side effect. After college, I worked part-time as an engineer and part time taking care of children. It’s a rather odd combination, but the childcare nurtured a completely different side of me. The engineering was intellectually stimulating. The childcare was socially stimulating. My bosses at both jobs loved me and each said I was excellent at my job. If not for the lack of stability at the engineering job and lack of benefits at either job, it quiet frankly would have been an almost ideal work environment for me. Had I been slightly less stubborn in my pursuit of a full time engineering job and slightly less addicted to programming (I love kids, but I have to code… must… code…), I might have given up and become a teacher. I can imagine that other women have decided to listen to their nurturing rather than their intellectual side.

Women also may prefer fields that have a perceived direct benefit to people. Medicine and law definitely effect people directly. Biomedical engineering has the obvious medical tie in. Civil engineering provides roads, bridges, and buildings and may also have an artistic element that appeals to some women. Electrical and mechanical engineering are more abstract fields with less obvious direct benefits to people (though the benefits certainly exist).

Comfort Level. As I’ve said, I don’t mind being the only female in an engineering group. I’m currently the only woman on an engineering team that consists of about fifteen people. This doesn’t bother me, but it seems to bother my aunt, who is a nurse. She puts a higher priority on social interaction than I do. I even read a letter to the editor in IEEE’s Spectrum from an electrical engineer who encouraged his daughter to go into engineering. She entered college as an engineer, but when she realized she was the only female in at least one of her classes, she changed her major to biology. I got the impression that she became a practicing engineer anyway, though she didn’t have the degree. That comfort level is extremely important in retention, but I’m not certain there is a quick fix. If a woman can’t handle being in a very small female minority in school, they probably won’t be comfortable being the only woman on a project team once they get into the real world. There are support organizations out there for women in science and engineering fields, but I never joined one, so I don’t know how useful they really are. As the number of women in engineering increases, the likelihood of being the lone female decreases. But more women need to brave that before others will follow.

I never noticed anything that was blatantly sexist, but I’m kinda dense and also have a high tolerance for teasing (nothing will ever come close middle school). What bugs others may not bug me or even show up as a blip on my radar. Still, there were professors at the school I attended who were known to believe that women should not be in engineering. Thankfully, I never had any of them. But it would certainly reduce the comfort level for the women in their classes.

So, when it comes right down to it, I guess I agree with Summers for the most part. There are differences between men and women (some are genetic, but I think some are still cultural). But that’s just one factor in the under-representation of women in engineering and scientific fields.


4 Comments:

Blogger - i said...

Finally I see somebody who sounds completely sane writing on this topic!

1/25/2005 7:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

o migosh!!!
a woman who likes to code???
how very curious...i mean interesting :)

-rags
http://360.yahoo.com/raghupathys

6/19/2005 7:02 AM  
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10/26/2005 4:56 AM  
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10/29/2005 3:32 PM  

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