The other day a friend asked me if I thought engineering was a good field for women. She explained that college recruiters were encouraging her daughter, a high school junior, to consider engineering because of her aptitude for math and science. For a moment I was speechless, because while I wanted to be encouraging, I also felt a need to warn her of the pitfalls.
This is where I should probably disclose a dirty little secret about my background. Although I have performed the role and had the title of “engineer” for over a decade, my bachelor’s degree is actually in fine arts. I even attended graduate school for a year with thoughts of obtaining my PhD in art history and can wax eloquent about the differences between Renaissance and Baroque art according to Wolfflin. My career in IT came about after working (and struggling) in the art gallery business for eight years. It was a field I genuinely disliked, but thought I was supposed to stay with it because of my degree. After personally computerizing the inventory and client list of my last gallery and making friends with the guy who wrote our software, I wondered if I could work in IT as a career. I’ll never forget what the person who gave me my first computer job said to me, “You don’t have a computer science degree, but you’ve run your own business. I think you’re smart enough to pick it up and I know that you’ll show up for work.”
I’ve worked pretty hard playing catch-up over the last fifteen years, and even though my absence of a background in classical engineering isn’t unusual in IT (one of the best network engineers I’ve ever worked with has a master’s in political science), I’ve always had a feeling of inferiority among my male peers. It affected my relationships, both personal and professional, and self respect. I also worked in a university for thirteen years, in a male-dominated department with co-workers ten years younger than myself, whom had all gone to school together. It redefined the term “boys club.” I lacked female role models and mentors, which left me feeling isolated, lonely and often depressed. I watched in frustration as I saw the other women I respected leave the technical side to work in project management or customer service. I even made friends with a woman who had been a software engineer, but left the field to pursue her dream of becoming a psychotherapist.
I recently read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which pinpoints one of the important reasons women leave engineering:
Specifically, women lack “professional role confidence,” a term that describes, loosely, a person’s sense that he or she belongs in a certain field. The term encompasses more than mastery of core intellectual skills. It also touches on a person’s confidence that he or she has the right expertise for a given profession, and that the corresponding career path meshes with his or her interests and values.
As one of the most sex-segregated professions outside the military, engineering carries ingrained notions and biases about men being more naturally suited to the field, which can have self-reinforcing effects, notes the paper’s lead author, Erin Cech, a postdoctoral fellow in sociology at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research.
So when I responded to the woman’s question, I told her about the article, but I also told her the sad story of Mileva Maric, Einstein’s first wife. Mileva Maric, a sort of Madame Curie doppelganger, met Einstein at the Zurich Polytechnic where they both studied physics.
However, unlike Marie Curie, after becoming pregnant by Einstein, Mileva gave up her studies, her career and focused all her energies in supporting her husband’s work. Ultimately, the marriage ended in divorce, obscurity and unhappiness for Mileva, a stunning example of the conflict women experience when attempting to choose between personal and professional fulfillment. Will my friend’s daughter be expected to make such a dramatic choice between career and family? Will she have to fight as hard to find respect from her male colleagues? Ultimately, my friend said she wouldn’t discourage her, but she thought it was important to have her daughter enter the field with her eyes open to the difficulties she would encounter. I also offered to be a mentor and suggested she reach out to the Society of Women Engineers.
However, for those of you with daughters or sisters who dream in hex and can perform binary conversion faster than a scientific calculator, I have promising news. Through my association with Greg, Ethan and the other Packetpushers, I’ve discovered that male and female engineers can be collegial, respectful and supportive of each other while still having fun. I’ve also been lucky with my new job, because I work with some really helpful, encouraging men and it’s the first time I’ve been on a team with another senior female engineer. So while there are still some significant hurdles for women to overcome in pursuing careers in science and technology, I’m certainly hopeful for the future.