Friday, July 23, 2010

Women and Engineering: Lack of Exposure?

Huffington Post has an interesting article today called: "Why Women Are Shunning Science Careers."

I remember being a freshman engineering student back in 1992.  At that time, my particular undergraduate program had the highest rate of freshman female engineering students of any school in the country.  The percentage?  18%.  There was even a class called "Women in Engineering."  The class consisted of a group of about 20 of us (obviously there were multiple classes) who sat around in a circle and talked about ourselves and the challenges we faced and would face as women in the field of engineering.  Speakers came in occasionally and talked to us about their careers.  It was the typical kind of feel good, emotional drivel that many women are wont to have.  After all, men don't sit around in a circle singing Kum Ba Ya and talking about their emotions and how hurt and isolated they felt.  Men just get on with it.  For that reason, it wasn't a class I particularly liked.   

At any rate, the rest of my classes in undergrad were dominated by men.  I remember one of my Chemistry recitations had about 30 students, which consisted of 28 men, me, and one other woman.  That never really bothered me.  I mean, I noticed it -- but I wasn't bothered.  I didn't care as long as I did well.  What was odd is that my advanced math and science classes in high school were pretty fairly evenly distributed between men and women.  Then, suddenly, college started and the women were gone for the most part from Physics, Chemistry, and Calculus.  (The freshman engineering weedout program.)  I greatly enjoyed my engineering classes, but then again, I like math and science and problem solving, which is the basis for almost every class.  I took classes in different fields of engineering as my electives, rather than take blow off classes like bowling or aerobics. 

I don't think there is any easy answer for why women don't flock to engineering careers, which pay very well, although everyone seems to like to try and find an answer.  If it's truly due to the clash between family responsibilities and career, that still doesn't explain why 18-22 year olds are not choosing those careers years before any of that would even be an issue.  And really, why would it be any different than any other career?  Women are going to face those types of prioritization issues in any career.  Is it stereotypes, socialization, discrimination?  I personally don't feel that it's the latter anymore, but the prior two could have something to do with it.   

Let's consider how engineers are perceived in the media -- televisions shows and movies.  Wait -- have you ever even seen a female engineer on a television show or in a movie?  I'm really not sure I have, the more I think about it.  Maybe you get a computer genius here and there, like Penelope Garcia on Criminal Minds or a mathematician like Amita on Numb3rs, or a forensic anthropologist like Bones.  Come to think of it, I'm not even sure I've seen a male engineer on television or in the movies in a leading role.  I suppose Apollo 13 had aeronautical engineers.  I have to admit that I never really thought about it until right this moment, but are there any television shows or movies that have a lead character who is an engineer? 

The female careers shoved at us from popular books and television and movie screens are the chefs, models, artists, actresses, reporters, teachers, writers, fashion designers or buyers, publicists, publishers, editors, politicians, radio personalities, "managers" (always vague what they are managing), attorneys, doctors, forensics, with an occasional FBI or CIA agent or cop thrown into the mix.  The argument that I hear most often is that the writers and brains behind the books, TV shows, and movies aren't science people, so that's why you don't see more science type fields given exposure, unless it is integral to the show.  Could it simply be that teenagers who are making decisions on what to be when they grow up are not exposed to careers like engineering, so they bypass them without even realizing it?  (As an aside, isn't it somewhat absurd that you have to decide what you want to be for the rest of your life when you are 18 years old, and have no idea of the many different career options available?)  Even if they do know about engineering, it's easy to see how that could look rather boring compared to some of the above mentioned careers, particularly when said careers are glamorized through the television and movies.  

My parents were the ones who encouraged me to go into engineering. They knew I was good at math and science and could probably handle it, so off I went. Without them, I probably wouldn't have even known what engineering was, much less majored in it.  I certainly didn't have any female engineer role models or anything like that.  I don't regret going into it at all, because I wouldn't be where I am now without that degree - going into patent law essentially required it.  It also doesn't hurt that companies like and want to hire female engineers.  By virtue of your sex alone you stand out from the pack of resumes and job seekers, and that doesn't hurt either.  And the fact is, you can do so many things with an engineering degree, things I'm still finding out about.  It's a degree that gives so many options, so the question is, why don't we see more women doing it?  Like many, I guess I will just continue to wonder.          

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