Why I Never Even Considered Becoming an Engineer

Why I Never Even Considered Becoming an Engineer August 14, 2014

A reader named David recently left a number of comments on my post on explaining sexism to my five-year-old daughter Sally. He started out with this comment:

If the lack of female achievement in science is due to sexism, and not inborn genetic differences in cognition and preferences, then answer me one question:

If the majority of college students in the US are female (60%), then why are the vast majority of mathematics, engineering, and computer science students male?

This seems inexplicable on the basis of sexism alone. Anyone living in the US today knows that young women do better in school, achieve more degrees and are generally more ambitious than their male counterparts. Why, then, are the vast majority of math/engineering/computer science degrees still going to males?

A number of commenters engaged him, pointing out that girls are told from a young age that girls aren’t good at math and taught to see the maths and sciences as a boy thing, and that the maths and sciences are often hostile fields to women who go into them, deterring women from trying and pushing out women who get fed up. Several female engineers chimed in telling stories of the discrimination they had experienced and pointing to some of the many little things that make the climate of these fields unfriendly to women.

David responded with this:

I find it very hard, indeed impossible, to believe that the gender biases and discrimination in engineering fields are so great and so well-known that this is enough to persuade large numbers of young women not to major in it, despite all of the incentives (like high pay).

It seems much more likely that the reason why they don’t major in engineering or related fields is simply because they are not biologically hardwired to do so. Men are biologically-hardwired to hunt, search for food, and dispassionately solve the problems that the hunting for food entails. This mindset lends itself well to the study of engineering and related subjects.

Women are not biologically hardwired to do this, rather, they’re hardwired to raise children and form cohesive social groups with their offspring. This mindset doesn’t lend itself well to engineering and related subjects.

At this point I finally chimed in. My reply was as follows:

Women are no less capable of being engineers than men, and men are no less capable of being caregivers than women. The issue is largely nurture, not nature. Girls are socialized growing up to be caregivers while boys are socialized to be leaders, and so forth. Girls are just as good at math and science as boys, and in the early years they are just as interested in those subjects as boys. But then, as they grow, they are told over and over again that girls are not good at the maths and sciences. This sexism pushes girls away from maths and sciences. And if you haven’t been keeping track of the sexism women face in tech, you should be. These fields are generally not friendly to women.

When I was a teen, my father told me I had the mind to be an engineer. I found the suggestion ridiculous, because engineering was something boys do. Now you could argue that this was me holding myself back. But I never chose to be bombarded with sexist messaging growing up, messaging which convinced me that engineering was a guy thing and not a girl thing.

This wasn’t about me feeling all nurturing or not having what it took to be an engineer. This was about being told, over and over, that the maths and sciences were for boys, until I believed it. And you know what? That is what you are doing. You are saying that maths and sciences are boy things, and that caregiving is a girl thing. And then you wonder why girls aren’t going into the maths and sciences in equal numbers? Well I don’t know, maybe it might have to do with being told that those are boy things?

David appears to be oblivious to the that it was people like him who prevented me from considering engineering. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the ability to be an engineer and it wasn’t that I simply wanted a more nurturing field. (I’m actually not very nurturing.) It was that people like him had taught me that engineering was for men.

In China, 40% of engineers are female, and in the former USSR, 58% of engineers were female. This isn’t to say women in these countries don’t face sexism, or that conditions there are perfect. My point is simply that women are in fact just as capable both of doing engineering and having an interest in engineering. These things are not hardwired into people’s brains. They are social and cultural. I’ve watched it in action myself—I have a younger sister in high school who is very good at math, but my mother time and again tells her that math is for boys, and even makes fun of her math interest. Last I heard my sister is now looking at majoring in piano in college, rather than math, as she had earlier considered.

One more thing to note, in light of David’s emphasis on the lucrative nature of engineering: When lucrative careers become more female in makeup, they often start to lose their lucrative edge. Take the case of doctors in Russia, for example—a majority of them are women, but they are paid far lower than doctors in other countries. Sexism also plays a role in the law pay of some female-dominated careers, such as teaching—teaching first became a female-dominated field over a century ago because schools could get away with paying women less than men.

What about the rest of you? What points would you add? What studies would mention?

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