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Girls Can Too

January 5, 2010
So the Washington Post is featuring this story about an engineering class at an "all-girls school." I'm almost always supportive of any attempt to get more women into engineering, and definitely that starts with young women and girls. But this supposedly optimistic piece about encouraging women to go into engineering rubs me the wrong way. Firstly, their teacher sure has a laid back attitude about the whole thing.
If students do go on to an engineering job, "great," Lee said. "Certainly, the world needs more women engineers."
I hope that's because he'd rather recruit them for physics, his own discipline. But it seems like that's not the case. That he doesn't really care what these young women do with the rest of their lives. And while I usually think all-girl programs like this are helpful, because they specifically target women instead of the usually easier to recruit dudes, I'm put off by a statement by one of the students.

"I love the all-girls aspect because you connect with them so well," said sophomore Kelsey Good, 15. "It's such an open environment."

Now, this is good for women. And good for a young woman's self esteem not to have to compete with dudes who will drown her out before she can get excited about the science. But at the same time (and obviously this class is not part of this, as this is strictly an all-girl school and they don't have the option) it doesn't teach The Dudes that women can be engineers too. That womens' intelligence and science can compete with the boys in the classroom. Sure, we try to recruit more women into this male-dominated industry, but then what do we do? We segregate them in these "safe" female only groups. And while I think it's beneficial that women learn to cooperate and work in teams with each other, I think it's important they learn how to work within the larger world. Even if (or especially if) that larger world is sometimes unfair or inhospitable. But then, if you expose them to that too early do you lose them? Or if you wait until they find it for the first time (whether in high school, college or elsewhere) are you just delaying the inevitable on when they'll walk away?
I have two young girls in my family who have absolutely no interest in engineering. They tell me they hate math. I might have even said similar things when I was their age. Science classes in junior high and high school can be extremely frustrating with a series of projects where the kid whose parents help them out usually do the best and the rest of the class if not given the resources will often find the class especially challenging. And even as close as I am to these two girls, I'm not sure what I could do or say that would spark their interest in engineering. I don't mean to convert them that this is necessarily their future job, just to get them to have an open mind about it, add it to the list of possible interests they are considering as they growing up. Because I know now it's not on that list.
Obviously, more women in engineering will have a compounding effect and inspire a greater number to the field. But how do you get there? I think of notable figures in certain fields; say, someone like Sally Ride, inspiring young women to pursue science. And I think what a real dearth there is in almost all fields. Maybe politics nowadays is the exception. We seem so concerned about having or not having a woman president and yet, where are the women scientists? There's been several women as secretary of state now, many (though not enough) senators, a female head of the FDIC, but there's no female Carl Sagan. And why is that? Does the good old boys crowd still not want to play nice? I appreciate programs that encourage girls to be self confident and to pursue science and engineering. But it might be more important to educate young boys that girls are just as capable and teach girls and boys to cooperate with one another in scientific projects from an early age.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2010 9:01 pm

    I think maybe to begin with we have to show the girls that they can do it — build their self-confidence. And then, when they know they can do it, they can show that to the boys.Also, don't you still hate math?

  2. January 7, 2010 4:36 am

    Great to try to get more girls interested in science, and to teach all genders that they're all capable and be cooperative. It'll take decades for them to grow up though and make new policies! I need better policies NOW, within my working lifetime :XSo, it's not just about getting more women in science now, because there's also also a problem in retaining women in science as they go further up the ladder. When you look at some subfields in biology, numbers of women are equal to or even greater than men in undergraduate years (as side note, I think this has an interesting and unwelcome side effect of women hitting grad school thinking that the world of science is equal and are completely unaware of any gender bias issues, especially the kind of subconscious unspoken biases that are more the norm nowadays, since overt biases are obviously unacceptable. Especially frustrating listening to these women proclaiming to both men and women that Women in Science and Engineering groups aren't needed). But then… there's a precipitous drop-off at each increasing career stage. Lots of reasons for this, such as lack of family-friendly policies at the workplace (another side note: not all grad programs have family leave policies, leading to withdrawal of funding and medical insurance, delayed graduation because of policies of needing to be registered for classes a semester or two prior, or some professors would look unkindly on lack of dedication evidenced by wanting to reproduce at an appropriately healthy age as a graduate student), cost of child care or lack of childcare at/near workplace, difficulty of work-life balance when the expectations of the traditional woman's role still weigh heavily on women pursuing high level careers that still expect dedication of insane hours. And these are only a few reasons for women possibly choosing a different career path away from the Carl Sagans, never mind the additional old boy's club type of environments or other biases. I personally keep pulling back from the idea of going for academic tenured professorship, and I know so many women around me who feel the same -who would want insane working hours for 6+yrs grad school, 3-5 yrs postdoc, ~5yrs unguaranteed tenure-track, and it doesn't really ever end because then one has to continue to fight for funding…I feel like the new generations of boys already, young men, many of them in the life sciences (I can't judge how the situation is in the other fields, since I haven't met all too many) are actually quite un-gender biased, as far as I can tell without grilling them about their beliefs, ha. Many are even aware of the ever present wage-gap! So I think in addition to educating new generations of boys and girls, we have to think about what *can* we do with what we have now: a growing generation of both men and women who are rising in the workforce who are increasingly aware of gender disparities, and who can fight for or make more famiy friendly policies in work-life balance for both men and women. Oh, I guess I should stop preaching to the choir now. Look what you did to set me off! 8)

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