Recently, I read an article on women in engineering careers and why many women tend to turn away from the field. Susan S. Silbey wrote in her article (“Opinion: The big reason women drop out of engineering isn’t in class”) about how the culture of engineering is what turns women away from the field, not the material or content. I agree.
When I first became interested in physics and engineering, back in high school, it was because I had the ambition to always challenge myself and I wanted to have a successful career that required intelligence. I perceived engineering as one of those careers, regardless of gender. I was not the only girl who felt that way; many girls in my classes enjoyed our technology and science classes. It was not until college where I noticed women in my major continuously dropping out or switching majors. They were all very smart girls, so I knew they were not flunking. But, as each semester passed, more and more left the program. By my junior year I was the only girl left in my major for my graduating class. At that point, I knew it was important for me to stay with the program to represent the women in physics and engineering. Any thought of leaving the program, like my peers, had to be brushed aside.
Curious to know perspectives of other women in physics and engineering on this topic, I went to the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics where I heard stories of women (especially from larger universities) who were being treated unfairly in their engineering or physics labs. One woman said that even her professor had mocked her about how to use simple tools (such as a screwdriver or wrench) because she was a woman and "obviously" did not know how to use them as well as men, which was not true. She actually excelled in the lab but her professor still felt the need to over-explain everything to her as though she did not understand as well as the men.
This was all news to me because at my small college, Le Moyne, I never felt threatened or challenged in this way.
Susan Silbey writes, “... during more informal, out-of-classroom training and socialization, women experience conventional gender discrimination that leaves them marginalized.” For this reason, it is easy to see how women can feel unwelcome and alone in the engineering, science, or technical fields. As I mentioned, in a previous blog I had written, “Happy Women in Engineering Day,” I was a victim of gender discrimination during my first interview for an engineering company. It is women who possess enough confidence to ignore those stereotypes that end up succeeding in these fields. Silbey makes a point to mention what successful women in engineering all have in common. She writes that 94% of women executives played sports growing up and 61% said sports played a role in their success. Again, I agree. I also grew up playing sports and I believe that being involved in competition is a big contributor to a higher level of confidence which leads to success.
I have a friend in my major, a woman, who is a year below me. Her experience at her first internship was unfortunate because she felt victimized by gender discrimination. Many of the men she worked with treated her as inferior to the male interns. This gave her a bad taste regarding engineering. Since that experience, she has decided to finish up her major in physics and then pursue a master’s degree in some business or finance program that will allow her to still be in the engineering environment, but working in a more “female-friendly” position. I was disappointed that she concluded that business and finance better suited for women than engineering, although I can see where she is coming from since there are much more women in these areas than in engineering. However, I refuse to let a stereotype influence my future. Hopefully in the near future, these male-dominated engineering companies can learn the benefits of having gender diversity.
There are engineering companies out there that strive hard to include women. I am fortunate to have found Indium Corporation, a successful company where gender does not impact the job that one is best suited for.