When I was in college, some twenty years ago, I went to an institute primarily focused on engineering (Georgia Tech). So it wasn’t surprising to hear guys constantly talk about “the ratio.” That would be the ratio of guys to girls, and it was always in the neighborhood of 4:1—not a happy statistic for a bunch of young college guys who were eager to party on the weekends.
Today, I (perhaps naively) assume that things are better, and while male students still outnumber females in the engineering ranks, the ratio isn’t as lopsided it once was. News stories on programs aimed to attract young women into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees and careers come across my newsfeed on a pretty regular basis, and great organizations like the Society of Women Engineers do much to promote the great career opportunities.
Recently, there was a bit of a brouhaha when esteemed rocket scientist Yvonne Brill passed away, and the New York Times wrote her obituary by leading with the fact that she made “a mean beef stroganoff” and was a great mom—and not her accomplishments in propulsion systems.
While we can all argue as to whether or not that obit was appropriate, the discussion about it on our Engineering Exchange led to some comments from a member about how she was treated in school, saying that the atmosphere was still quite hostile, particularly in the mechanical areas.
I reached out to some female engineering students on social media sites, and the responses were varied and interesting. One senior studying Civil Engineering explained that she’s always taken the approach that she simply had to work harder to earn her peers respect, but that it largely worked for her—until her senior design classes. At that point, she was working with another student she met through SWE and they both received high grades. It was then that male classmates began insinuating that they were getting high grades because they were women—teachers must be favoring them, they couldn’t possibly be working hard.
Another woman, Emily, currently majoring as a EE, felt that while females are generally treated well, they are not treated as equals. She faced similar criticisms from male students that her high grades must have been a result of favoritism. The first time she walked into a computer class, a male student told her, “You must be in the wrong class, this is a computer programming class.” This belief that she could not possibly program a computer made her work twice as hard just to prove that she belonged.
On a happier note, Michelle, a recent Georgia Tech graduate in ME, told me how, while there were rare instances of being treated unfairly, she mostly used the scarcity of females to her advantage. She found that it was easier for the professors to remember her in a class dominated by males. And even the other students recognized her studying in the library, so she always had a surplus of study partners.
Josephine Casely-Hayford, an applications engineer with Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies, noted that in her field of study, mechanical engineering, men tend to make inappropriate inferences about women’s appearances, some deliberate, some not. And they can ignore contributions from females.
“Some men feel like engineering is not for women, and some feel like women should not be in leadership … some men completely encourage and love the idea of women in engineering, and consider them to be much more organized, decisive and great leaders,” she said.
Still, maybe the answer to the lack of female engineers isn’t as simple as persuading young women that they can do it. Maybe we also need to be educating young men to understand that women can do it. And maybe we need to remind college faculty that it’s their job to ensure that all engineering students are treated fairly and on a level playing field.