Engineering is a field that, according to the Society of Women Engineers receives around 50,000 new students every year, but only about 20 percent are women. Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons why this number is so low, starting with how children are raised from birth, throughout school and finally in the work force.
Starting at a young age, women are constantly conditioned to be homely folk. This can be done in a number of ways such as toys that mimic domestic life or through sexist comments. These come in many different forms such as “make me sandwich” or buying a girl a doll while buying a boy a telescope.
The thing is, though, by continuing these actions we encourage our children to stay within the status quo. In some cases it’s possible for the gender cycle to be broken. An example of this is my girlfriend Sam, who is currently working as a mechanical engineer at a nuclear reactor.
Growing up, Sam had access to whatever toys she wanted; this included a tool set at age three, and continued science and mathematical based toys from then on. Ultimately these toys led her to love math and science. In school she scored better in these subjects than her friends who normally played with domestic toys.
Another advantage Sam had, was her parents, who encouraged her to think about things mathematically. They stood up for Sam’s love of math and made sure she had plenty of opportunities to learn. One particular example of this is when a calculus teacher told them she shouldn’t take his class. His reasoning was that women belong barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Thankfully her parents took steps to keep this attitude from affecting their daughter.
These are just Sam’s stories from childhood. In college she faced many of the same situations, not from professors, but from other students. In her first year she struggled to get through her basic engineering classes because the other students would not work with her. In group projects she was left out or ignored because the male students didn’t think she was smart enough to contribute. Going to into her sophomore year, though, that started to changed when the students saw how much better she was on the individual homework assignments. As she continued in school, she constantly had to push herself to get recognition, but she also gained more respect from her fellow classmates.
Two years ago Sam graduated with her degree and was offered two jobs, while some of the male graduates received up to six job offers. In some cases she applied for the same companies but wasn’t offered a job, despite being better qualified. Sam applied for a job working at Boeing, but was turned away for not fitting the company’s image, despite her learning emphasis in Aeronautics and her work for NASA on the flywheel energy project. Instead, the job went to a classmate who spent all of his time working on a Formula One race car.
In Sam’s current job working with nuclear energy, she still faces many of the same problems she did in school. At her work place, many of the men refuse to acknowledge her presence or they continuously double-check her work. The worst part of her job is the remarks male coworkers remake. Every day she is called a glorified secretary, told go back to the kitchens, to step aside so men can do their jobs, or that she stole her job from a man. In many cases nothing can be done about these comments, because people think she is just a woman over-reacting.
Stories like this are all over America for women, especially those in math or science based fields. Many times women simply drop out of these types of educational and occupational fields because they feel they won’t succeed. Sometimes they can’t handle the workload, but often women are forced out so a man can “do his job.” Thankfully there are organizations such as the society for Women Engineers to help stop this mentality.