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Look smart! (Bonus points for not being sexist.) February 23, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineerblogs.org, engineering, feminism, grad school, physics, science.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Some of you are undoubtedly aware of the conversation that started with Fluxor’s post about women engineers and perception at our favorite engineering blog.  This started a huge conversation on reddit (which can be summarized as “women are incompetent and keeping men from getting the jobs they deserve”) as well as a response discussion on reddit2xc discussing how frustrating and pervasive the attitude seems to be.  Frautech weighed in with her incredibly intelligent ladybrain.

At FrauTech’s blog, Chris Gammell wrote:

Here’s all I can come up with for why in the world someone would think this way.


It’s a good theory, and while I don’t know that it’s right, I think he may actually be coming close.

When I was working on my MS, I ended up taking a class with a guy who was a superstar as an undergrad but had just started his master’s.  We were taking a class in emag, and after class, we’d sit and talk.  I would often go off on how some things frustrated me, what I didn’t understand, how confusing certain topics were, etc.

After about a month, I was asking him what he’d figured out on a homework set.  He looked around nervously, leaned over to me and shook his head.

“I have no idea what’s going on in this class.”


Every notion I had of him being so much more intelligent and competent than me shattered like glass.  I really thought he knew this stuff…and I spent a lot of the semester helping him out on homework.

I realized at that point how much posturing goes on in engineering classrooms: guys really do feel a need to look smart, and engineering is notoriously competitive.  When I was taking classes with other female engineers, we had no problems discussing our frustrations and confusion with topics in the class.  Guys never did.  They never let on that they didn’t know something (except for the one experience).  I suspect this is part of adhering to the stereotype that men can’t let anyone know their weaknesses.

Reading the comments over at Reddit, there is a big part of me wondering if the whole “women are so much less compentent than men” issue that keeps coming up is due to the fact that women don’t feel shame in discussing their frustrations and struggles.  Most men simply would never do that, and so they take women doing so as a sign that they aren’t competent.  In reality, they’re just being honest about how their feeling, and due to things like impostor syndrome, a lot of women worry about failing and not keeping up with their colleagues.  I really wonder how many men view these admissions as signs of weakness and failure, reinforcing a view that women aren’t as competent.  In reality, the admission may be verbalizing concerns while having nothing to do with actual competence and ability.  Women perceive they are not keeping up with their colleagues, they say something to this effect, and men then assume this means they really aren’t keeping up with their colleagues.

This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that women, in some engineering programs, are so few that they are often more easily remembered than male classmates who may, in fact, really be doing far worse.  Considering most women I’ve run into have had a lot of difficulty finding study partners, I’m blown away that women do as well as they do.  There have been a number of studies showing that women tend to fare worse than men in traditional classroom environments due to reduced interaction.  One example is a study showing that women fare as well as men when the classroom is interactive (see here).  There have also been studies (although not definitive) showing that women tend to fare better in online learning because the social advantage men tend to have in such classes is removed in online learning. (Unfortunately, I’ve scoured Google scholar and can’t find the reference.  If you have it, let me know.)  This isolation has a lot of negative consequences both academically and career-wise.

I don’t think, therefore, that the real problem is that women are less competent.  I think some of the “observational data” is very perception driven and fueled by differences in communication.  Men need to understand that women who are actually very capable fear failing, even when they are doing vastly better than their male classmates and colleagues.



1. GEARS - February 24, 2011

I had a post earlier on saying I don’t know and I think it is difficult for engineers, especially male engineers to say they don’t know something. As an engineer, you’re expected to come up with answers, sometimes on the spot. As a guy, there’s more than a bit of male “machismo” in that as well.

I’m just as guilty as the next person about portraying ultra confidence but I learned pretty early on it’s better to say you don’t know (and look inferior to my male colleagues) than it is to paint yourself into a corner. Maybe it’s because I know I’m not inferior to them =D

Most guys won’t admit that publicly (meetings, conference questions, presentations) and would rather paint themselves into a corner. That’s been my experience. Just look at it in the political arena…


mareserinitatis - February 24, 2011

Excellent point. I’m having to learn some of this with my teenager. Sometimes I just don’t get the way he’ll act…but my husband does.

I do feel really bad for guys because I think they have a boatload of unfair expectations laid on them. On the other hand, when I see things like the reddit discussion, I find my empathy evaporating pretty quickly.

And I really hate it when people try to look smart to me. I’m learning to deal with it, though…


2. Miss MSE - February 24, 2011

It may be a function of the gender distribution in my field, but many of the guys in my major-specific undergraduate classes were willing to admit weakness and ask for help, even asking help of the women. It certainly didn’t hurt that there were several very confident women in all of my classes. On the other hand, in my more general engineering classes, and my classes in other engineering disciplines, I saw much more of the machismo factor.

I think some of the fear of failure for women was very well summed up over at xkcd: http://xkcd.com/385/


mareserinitatis - February 24, 2011

I think some of it is a function of size as well as gender distribution. I had small classes in physics, so despite being the only woman in most of them, we all knew each other and our relative strengths. I felt like my fellow students respected me. Moving over the EE with class sizes between 30 and 60 (and only one or two women) was awful. And geology was much better. Although a lot of the women I went to grad school with didn’t take the same classes as I did, there were at least one or two in each class and we were able to study together. It really did a lot to alleviate the isolation.


3. Luke Holzmann - February 24, 2011

Dr. Sax says as much in his awesome book “Why Gender Matters” (which, if you haven’t read, you need to). He points out that the gender of a teacher can radically affects the student’s success. He tells the story of a female student he knew who had gone to her male math teacher for help right after the first day of class. He told her, “Perhaps you’re not cut out for this program.”

“Was he being sexist?” Dr. Sax asks. No. He was working from his understanding. For guys, asking the teacher for help is the very last resort (one guys often don’t even get to). So, for this teacher, he assumed that the girl had already exhausted all other opportunities for figuring this out. If she had done all that work and was still that lost this early in the program, perhaps she wasn’t cut out for it.

Little did he realize, Dr. Sax points out, that she was doing the very female thing of seeking help immediately. He couldn’t even begin to imagine such a practice and so came to the wrong conclusion.

The story, thankfully, has a happy ending.

And the book is amazing (and as similar observations about boys in classes taught my women).

All that to say: I think you’re right about the difference between guys and girls and how this affects the culture of engineering which you observe.



mareserinitatis - February 24, 2011

I think the sad thing is that people think we’ve moved past stereotypes when it’s pretty obvious that there is still a lot of confusion between ‘gendered behavior’. I guess I would feel better about it if there was that attempt at understanding it on the other end, but it seems like, in engineering, the loudmouths are setting the tone of the dialogue.

I do have to say that I was really impressed with how so many engineers on Twitter talked about how stupid this whole discussion was. I feel like there’s been some progress in the 15 years since I first discovered it was even an issue. We’ll get there…but I sure hope the progress picks up soon.


4. Bob Cross - November 28, 2011

Hi – I bumped into Fluxor’s comments about women, engineering and perception while I was poking around looking for something else. That is a great thread and your related observations are astute.

I am past ED of the Canadian Engineering Memorial Foundation, and believe you me, the perception problem is alive and well in the minds of many silver-haired “gentlemen” in the profession. In part, that is why fewer than 20% of all engineers in Canada and the US are women.

So the question of course is, “How do we stop disenfranchising 50% of the population needed to help develop and improve our social lot in life?


mareserinitatis - November 29, 2011

It’s going to be a rather difficult job. Of course, one can take the Max Planck approach to the whole thing: Truth never triumphs — its opponents just die out.


5. GMP - November 28, 2011

I really wonder how many men view these admissions as signs of weakness and failure, reinforcing a view that women aren’t as competent. In reality, the admission may be verbalizing concerns while having nothing to do with actual competence and ability. Women perceive they are not keeping up with their colleagues, they say something to this effect, and men then assume this means they really aren’t keeping up with their colleagues.

This is very, very true. I have finally learned not to share frustrations with anyone at work, because it’s too dangerous for this particular reason. Fears and weaknesses are just never discussed.
Honestly, that’s one of the main reasons why I started blogging — so I have a place to vent and can keep up the manly appearance that I’m 100% sure of myself all the time.

Another thing I have had to remove — self-deprecating humor, which is common in my culture. Here, in the US (or at least in the circles that I move in), if I make a joke at my own expense, people seem to think that it is actually true. Putting yourself down is apparently not considered humorous by a long shot; rather, it indicates that you yourself think that you suck, so then you must truly suck!


mareserinitatis - November 29, 2011

I find self-deprecating humor funny to a point, but I know a couple people who have gone way overboard on it. A little bit is okay, in my book…but too much, and people will start agreeing with you.

It’s frustrating that we can’t just be ourselves without having all this subtext being read into our interactions.


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