16 responses to “Women, Engineering, and Perception”

  1. Kate

    Great reply. I’d only add that a person who does not feel the discrimination does not have the right to tell other people how they feel. William W. Hastings may have 50 years of engineering experience, but he sure doesn’t know much.

  2. GEARS

    Even if there is a difference between brains of different sexes, you’re probably looking at some 60/40 split. NY times just had a book review of Cinderella ate my daughter. I haven’t read the book, but there might be a culprit for additional skewing. NanoGEARS is 10 months old and I’m scared shitless of the pink phase. Hopefully she’ll learn how to use a wood lathe by then.

  3. Bill

    If a man was promoting less women (percentage wise) in the engineering workforce, would that be sexual discrimination? If so, how is promoting less men (percentage wise) not discrimination?

    While I think Hasting may have brushed over and oversimplified a legitimate issue, I think Freeman went over the top in blaming a “hostile” work environment as a primary cause of women leaving the field while barely mentioning motherhood, except in a nearly negative light, lamenting that women disproportionately shoulder family responsibilities.

    Is choosing to be a mom really any less valuable then choosing to be an engineer? And who is really to tell a person what to choose? I think it is important to educate young women (and men) about the possibilities of an engineering profession, but think some social engineering program (targeting specific percentages) is going too far.

    1. Cherish The Scientist

      The problem, in my observation, is that most women drop out because of the expectation that, because they are women, they are supposed to drop out and take care of the kids. The women whose husbands help with half of the housework and child-rearing are far less likely to drop out. Most women I know don’t want to drop out but feel like they are not being given any other option either because they cannot reduce hours at work or because they do not have a supportive spouse.

      So it’s not that parenting is less valuable: it’s that a large number of women who are choosing that route may not be doing so willingly.

    2. Ann

      Comparing choosing of being a mom vs. being an engineer is similar to comparing apples and oranges, isn’t it? How about being a mom vs. being a dad? Engineering vs. … nursing/teaching (or what is considered as a “feminine” profession? To me this will be more logical comparison.
      About some restrictions in the profession. I found here that there is a restriction for female being for example, a concrete tester (I know, it is not exactly an engineering position per say, but some internationally trained engineers or fresh grads could be seaking a possibilty to get foot into the door). And the reason of this certain restriction based on demand of heavy lifting for that position. The problem could be solved this way: at the site could be a position for non-qualified job including heavy lifting when necessary (and it does not have to be high-paid job), and a position for doing all analyses, calculations etc. – for someone with higher qualification (and yes, it could be a male or a female). This is just one little example.

  4. Ron Amundson

    The differences between nursing and engineering are likely due in large part to the support system. Ie, hours reductions, or extended times away from the job are really hard sells in engineering, as the tasks at hand are often sequential and non-fungible, more so in specialty areas than general.

    In nursing, short of some specialties, its easier to shift work around to provide cover for reduced hours/absence… and it doesn’t take very long to get up to speed when you return. I think similar factors play out in the physician realm… the work is a lot less sequential.

    1. Fluxor

      Interesting hypothesis. But how does it really explain 95% of nursing is women? Flexibility in work hours repel men? Then what about physicians vs. nurses? Why is one predominately men and one way-way-way predominately women? It seems to me societal expectations is a large factor.

  5. Bill

    Hi Flux, I was referring to the call to a greater targeted percentage of female engineers. Attempts to meet such quotas invariably cause reverse discrimination, how can they not? I think this fear is in part what drove Hasting’s response, especially based on his last sentence.

    I believe motherhood is an issue for women leaving the workforce for more than engineering, (see The Opt-Out Revolution-NYT). I would love to see more flexible hours for engineers to deal with family issues, but also have to be realistic in the fact that engineering may not lend itself to such positions as well as other professions, such as nursing, but hopefully telecommunication will help change that. There’s also the problem of age. Women returning to an engineering career after motherhood may face some age discrimination in an industry that seems to prefer young engineers. Not to mention, with a fast pace of change, taking a few years off (or more) can leave you behind the times.

    I don’t really think the dropout rate is a huge problem or that sexist male engineers are driving out women any more than sexist nurses are driving away men, it seems to be an issue with fewer women getting in in the first place. As for why less women start out in engineering or few men become nurses, I think it is a combination of biological and cultural issues, including some feedback between the two (e.g. women may be more natural nurturers, and so jobs that utilize that skill set -such as nursing- may be culturally seen as unmanly). In terms of biological reasons, I’m not talking about capabilities, but general preferences. I’m sure I could be trained to be more nurturing, but would still have likely 0 interest in being a nurse, as I’m sure my wife is capable of learning improved spatial visualization skills without making her want to be an engineer.

    Assuming men and women are different, there is going to be some bell curve to the various career paths and bound to be some outliers, perhaps engineering and nursing are two of the extremes. If there world was free of cultural norms, I’m not sure what the natural difference in male/female engineers would be, but think guessing and pushing a target percentages is dangerous.

    Hasting seemed to read Freeman’s article a bit defensively, and sort of had a knee jerk reaction. I don’t really think Freeman is really advocating discrimination or blaming sexist engineering men on the current state of affairs, but her message could have been a bit better written in a manner less likely to offend the likes of Hasting.

    1. Fluxor

      Some excellent points, Bill. I’ll have to disagree that targeting a percentage necessarily means reverse discrimination. Programs to help raise the interest of girls in engineering so more are in the pipeline and to help reduce discrimination in the workplace as to retain more women both can be done without any discrimination. As you suggested, corporations more sensitive to dealing with family issues is another way to retain women.

      Reverse discrimination, or affirmative action as it’s usually referred to, also has its place in my opinion. I’ll make an analogy to endangered species that are close to extinction due to human activity. If left as is, extinction will be the result. If special protections are put in place, the population may recover, at which time the special protections can be removed. It’s a delicate line to walk, but it can work if (a big if) implemented properly.

  6. Mike

    Just had some fun (if you want to call it that) over at reddit looking at the ‘nice’ discussion this post generated. Since I’m too lazy to make a reddit account just to get slammed by a bunch of people who’s opinions don’t mean jack to me, I thought I would comment here.

    I now have just over two decades of post-bachelor’s degree engineering experience under my belt. While I haven’t job-hopped much, the places I have worked were quite varied: a very large organization (DoD), a smaller company (~100) that later was swallowed up by a global corporation (~30,000), and (my current) quasi-academic position. In all three of these positions I have had ample opportunities to interact with other engineers, both internal and external to my place of employment.

    Though women in engineering are few and far between, I have had some opportunity to work with women engineers. My first supervisor was a woman, and out of the dozen or so supervisors I have had I would rate her in the top third. And before you ask, this was not a case of moving into management because she couldn’t handle the technical work – she was just as good technically as the other engineers in the division.

    I also worked on a fast-track project that had a woman as team lead. In addition to taking care of her portion of the project, she kept the rest of us on schedule and kept management off of our backs. This was not easy – DoD was going through a major series of layoffs, our project had money, and we were under tremendous pressure to add people to the project.

    I’m now working in an environment where creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and the ability to self-start / self-teach are necessities. There are about ten engineers in the group, spanning a wide range of ages and education. Only one of my colleagues is a woman, and she is working part time. Guess who is generating more patents…

    Most of the engineers I have worked with I consider to be solid and dependable. I have had the good fortune to work with a couple that were so good they were scary. I have also had the misfortune to work with a few that were so bad I wanted to blacklist the institutions that let them graduate.

    I would estimate that less than 5% of the engineers I have worked with were women. That may only amount to 15 or 20 women, but I think it says something that NOT ONE of the engineers that I consider to be substandard or lacking was a woman.

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  8. EngineerChic

    Great thought-provoking piece (and commentry), touching on all the hot points of this topic:

    *Quota-system controversy and the risk of basing opinions on statistics
    *Fundamental differences between the sexes
    *Social/ environmental factors that influece women choosing engineering
    *Female engineer retention and drop-out rates

    Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with the article – I’ve read many articles pushing for more women in engineering , many which displayed the naive generalisations and statistic-driven opinions to which Hastings is referring, and this one seems pretty solid. It is fair and doesn’t make unsubstatiated assumptions.

    I’ve dealt with this issue myself in a few posts on my blog http://engineerchic.me

    particularly this one:

    http://engineerchic.me/2011/08/27/transforming-the-image-of-engineering-part-1/

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