Could We Have Some Estrogen With Our Engineering, Please?

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.

Mileva Maric

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.


  1. Dave says

    Earlier in my career I worked with a women who had a natural aptitude for IT and engineering.  She was brilliant. She was equally comfortable writing code in Visual Basic,doing Server management, or network device management.  I relocated to another part of the country and did not keep in touch. I often wonder if she stayed in the IT field.

  2. says

     Completely relate to the notion of the “boys club” within IT industry as a “Gasp” senior network engineer who happens to be a girl :) I’ve lost
    count of the times I’ve arrived onsite particularly as data centres and
    have had someone look at me incredulously when I tell them what I do
    and that it will be me yes me who will be racking that big ol 6500 chassis ! 

  3. Lauren says

    Very interesting article!  Sometimes I wonder if the more we point out the differences or insecurities of women in IT, we actually make it worse on ourselves…or is it the opposite?  Do we need to continually talk about it to make men and women more comfortable with women in the IT industry?  Pros and cons to both sides.

    • says

       As I mentioned in the article, the guys I work with now are pretty enlightened. They have daughters and want to encourage them to pursue careers in science and technology. But I don’t think men realize how hard it is sometimes. I suffered in silence for many years and I think awareness goes a long way towards change.

  4. David James says

    As a 47 year old college educated male I can tell you that I wish there were more women in the IT field especially networking.  I have learned to let my ego fly out the window as I have learned and continue to learn for everyone around me, young or old, male or female.  I have a 15 year old daughter who quite honestly is just as at home with Windows 7 as she is with Ubuntu and I try to tell her to consider IT as one of her possible career choices when she gets older.  I mean how many female CCIE’s are really out there?

    • says

      Whatever the number is, the answer is “NOT ENOUGH”. Both Ethan and I are keen to encourage Women in IT and proactively search for women who are willing to speak up and be role models. Thus “Mrs Y”, “AmyEngineer” and JenniferLucille are all friends and guests of the show.

      If you are a woman and want to speak up too, then get in contact and we would be pleased to give you a voice on Packet Pushers.

      That’s a promise. We need to encourage women in IT.


  5. Allen Esterson says

    With Mileva Maric, Einstein’s first wife, it is not a simple case of a woman giving up her career to support her husband. She failed the Zurich Polytechnic teaching diploma examinations in 1900 with a very poor grade in the mathematics component (2.5 on a scale 1-6). She failed again when she took it a second time in 1901 (it was on this second occasion when she was some three months pregnant), but her poor results in mathematics both times suggests that she would have been unlikely to have been able to pursue a career in physics even if she had not been pregnant the second time round. (More generally, her mathematics coursework grades throughout her time at the Polytechnic were moderate, at best.)

    • says

       According to Dennis Overbye’s book, “Einstein in Love,” when she failed in 1900, she was already involved with Einstein. Just prior to those exams, she had taken time off from the Polytechnic to spend time at the university in Heidelberg (maybe in an attempt to avoid Einstein). It was inferior to the Polytechnic and when she returned, Einstein pointed out that she had fallen behind. He and his work increasingly became the focus of her efforts, putting her own studies aside. She and Einstein also had a very difficult time with Heinrich Weber, head of the department of mathematics and applied physics. In the book “In Albert’s Shadow,” there is a suggestion that this poor relationship impacted both of their academic careers.

      • Allen Esterson says

        MrsY: First, Overbye’s book is a popular biography and not always reliable. Second, there are several errors in your comment. The semester Maric spent as an auditor at Heidelberg was in the winter 1898-1899, not just before her (failed) final teaching diploma exams in 1900. Heidelberg University was a highly reputable institution with high quality professors. There is no evidence at all (only evidence-free assertions) that Einstein increasingly became the focus of her efforts – letters to Einstein show that she took her studies and revising for exams seriously and his letters show how much he encouraged her. There is no evidence that she had a difficult time with Weber until 1901, when letters to her friend Helene Kaufler Savic indicate she had differences with him over her proposed doctoral dissertation. There is no evidence whatsoever that her relationship with Weber impacted on her failure to achieve a career – it was in physics topics taught and marked by Weber that she gained her best coursework and diploma exam grades.

        In regard to Milan Popovic’s “In Einstein’s Shadow”, in which the author writes a short introduction to the correspondence between Maric and Savic: The author has no expertise on the subject and his opinions are just that – his opinions, not facts. He writes, for instance, that “Once at the Polytechnic Mileva excelled at her studies”. This is not borne out by her Polytechnic grades. In the first year her coursework grades (mostly mathematical subjects) averaged around 4.2 on a scale 1-6, which one might describe as moderate at best. He claims that Maric was an accomplished mathematician, but her mathematics entrance exam grades (average 4.25), through her mathematical coursework grades to her very poor failing grade of 2.5 in the final diploma exam in 1900 indicate she was a mediocre mathematician. On a minor point, I see it is from Popovic that you state that Weber was head of the department of mathematics and physics. No major biography describes Weber as anything but head physics professor, so it looks like Popovic didn’t get that right either.

        • Allen Esterson says

          Correction: The semester Maric spent as an auditor at Heidelberg was in the winter 1897-1898, i.e., well over two years before the final diploma exams in July 1900.

          • says

            In Walter Isaacson’s book, “Einstein,” Weber is described as “The Polytechnic’s head physics professor.”  The book also describes how Einstein frequently clashed with Weber over Einstein’s unorthodox methods. In fact, the book references letters which suggest Einstein thought that Weber was his nemesis and prevented him from obtaining a position with Gottingen professor Eduard Rieke after graduation. There are letters between Einstein and Maric discussing this. As for academic success, in 1900, there are records that both Einstein and Maric received some of the lowest essay scores in Weber’s class, with Einstein graduating with a score of 4.9, while Maric scored 4.0. She was Serbian, walked with a limp, the only woman in the department and heavily involved in a sexual relationship with someone who considered himself a nonconformist. Einstein also believe antisemitism was involved in his early academic and career struggles. Their relationship was also opposed by his family. I have a hard time believing that these factors wouldn’t impact her ability to succeed. By 1901, she was unmarried and pregnant with a child she would later abandon, because of the scandal. Is it any wonder she failed her second attempt?

          • Allenesterson says


            The Zurich Polytechnic records show that in both her
            coursework grades and intermediate diploma exam grades in the physics topics
            marked by Weber, Maric scored consistently higher than in any other topic (generally
            grade 5 on a scale 1-6). In 1900 she was offered an assistantship by Weber provisional
            on obtaining the diploma. Einstein’s grades in these topics marked by Weber
            were even better, always equal or higher than Maric’s. (His bad relationship
            with Weber precluded his being offered an assistantship as well.) Their grades
            for their physics dissertations marked by Weber were lower, but there is no
            comparison with other candidates in their year as the other three remaining
            members of their group were majoring in mathematics.

  6. Seyda says

    I’m glad I came across this post because I understand the sentiments expressed here. I’ve worked with both types of people: encouraging and discouraging. What I have found is that those people exists in every field! So, as a woman in network engineering, I have a different outlook because I don’t tend to think along gender lines, and perhaps a bit on purpose because I don’t feel I’m less capable because I am a woman. I focus on the skills I have and skills I will acquire through study and experience.

    Also, here’s a shout-out to Ethan. It was good working with you and you were one those people who has encouraged me. Thanks!

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