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Why are the women so good? January 21, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, teaching.
Tags: , , , , ,

I’d been thinking about writing this post last semester.  However, it slipped my mind until some trollish comments showed up on EngineerBlogs today.  I think that Chris, Gears and Katie gave the troll a good smackdown, but one comment bothers me:

few women are capable of handling these kind of demanding environment.

I’ve heard this before (pretty much since I started as an undergrad).  However, after teaching my class last semester, I have to wonder what the hell these people are talking about.

I had 90 students last semester, 5 of whom were women.  All five of those women were easily in the top 25% of the class and were more likely in the top 10% of the class.  They were the students who repeatedly handed in assignments on time and seldom (if ever) had to redo any of them.  I will say that none of them chose to do the programming – but that is likely because they had turned in all the optional assignments required for an A before the matlab assignments were given.

If anything, what I saw was puzzling to me.  The women seemed the most prepared to meet the demands of a college class, were able to communicate well both in written and verbal form (and one of them was a non-native English speaker), and contributed well and frequently to the class.  It was almost strange how they were on top of things when the majority of their male classmates were struggling.

I’ve heard it argued that the women most likely to be in engineering are generally those who are in the top of their classes.  Women who may be good at math but not outright brilliant will be swayed to go into other careers.  From what I could see, this was true.

If you listen to trolls on the internet, you get the impression that women are incompetent engineers, however.  The women in my class were some of the most competent and motivated students, but I admit that they were more passive than the male students, which I still think leads the male students (and probably later on, male professors) to believe that the female students don’t know anything.  But it’s interesting to hear this comments after witnessing the exact opposite of what everybody “knows to be true”.  I can only think that people who make these comments are really overestimating their own abilities or wrongly judging what it takes to be a good engineer.  Maybe both.



1. missmse - January 21, 2012

Conversations like these on the internet always emphasize how lucky I’ve been in offline interactions. As an undergrad, the guys openly acknowledged that the girls were as good or better than they were as it was true.In my internship, the female member of the group was openly acknowledged as the supreme guru of oil condition analysis. And in teaching last semester, the great students and the worst students were evenly divided by gender.


2. abbeykaye - January 21, 2012

My field is in no way related to engineering, however, in most areas of life these assertions regarding one’s aptitude for tasks due to their gender are prolific, horribly so. In our patriarchal society women must be shown as lesser than men as it reinforces the status quo and gives men power. My thoughts on why some of your female students may act “passive” is because that women are taught to be passive. Even in our modern society women are taught to be reserved, gracious — in essence: feminine. By having these intelligent and high achieving women act in that passive way it also reinforces the status quo because the males can then make the assumption that these young women are untelligent! It’s a horrid cycle.

As far as those ridiculous, chauvinistic bloggers on EngineerBlogs are concerned, it was once thought that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote because our realm was that of the domestic — women were considered property — women could not divorce their husbands — women were not allowed to have their own careers — the list goes on. Perhaps they suggest that women are so far beneath them that we should revert back to these standards as well…


3. Charles J Gervasi - January 21, 2012

The troll comments are complete rubbish. I see some differences in men and woman on the average, but I can’t know whether it’s nature or nurture. And if it’s a it’s a question of handling demanding tasks, women come out superior on the ave. (This is only on the average, and it may be society rather than intrinsic nature.) So many women run demanding careers while still doing more of the actual work, play does not count, of taking care of kids. So I could say women are more capable of handling demanding tasks, but I won’t judge anyone based on that. Why judge people based on their group? Judge everyone based on what that person actually does! Asian Americans do better at engineering as a group than African Americas, but I’m not going to make any decisions about an individual based on averages.


4. GMP - January 22, 2012

A bit of a tangential comment: I think when trying to sell engineering to women, it is important to emphasize that engineering nowadays is not the same as 100 years ago; it’s not about heavy machinery and grease. Being an engineer involves a lot of verbal and written communication (where women are traditionally stronger than men) as well as math, physics, and programming.

If someone had tried to lure me into engineering by the prospect of making cool robots or gadgets (which is the norm in my department), I would have been all “meh.” Electronic toys don’t excite me. What does excite me is challenging math and physics that is behind current nanotechnology, and I think we are forgetting that one way to attract people (men and women alike) to engineering is reminding them that it is indeed applied science and that it offers plenty of intellectual stimuli.

For instance, I do theory/computation at the interface of physics/EE/materials science and I find that many men (EE students) don’t want to do that because it’s not sufficiently hands-on; in contrast, I have found that most women are not so dead-set on doing something hands on and are open to projects with a strong mathematical or computational component instead. My strongest two former graduate students were both women, they did projects that were extremely challenging and required long-term vision, systematic thinking, excellent grasp of math and physics, and strong programming skills. And let’s not forget the ability to write well and do it fast, and communicate clearly. I think we need to start emphasizing that nowadays to be successful you need to be the whole package rather than just the tinker nerd; that’s the women’s true edge in science or engineering.


5. FrauTech - January 22, 2012

GMP’s observation fits in with what I’ve seen in industry. There’s definitely an emphasis on those with hands on skills. If you were a car mechanic before or work on something in your garage on weekends. A big reason I got into engineering was because using the solid design programs and putting something together is a very satisfying experience. And this is a skill that my hands-on superiors don’t value. They also don’t tend to value doing an analysis in matlab or finding certain trends in data. However I have just as many male colleagues who go the hands on tinker route and those who go maybe more of a design or programming or analysis route. Only when a woman goes the analysis route she is “not as technical” as her peers. Double standard bit there.


6. Jackie - January 23, 2012

“I think we need to start emphasizing that nowadays to be successful you need to be the whole package rather than just the tinker nerd; that’s the women’s true edge in science or engineering.”

The problem is, very few people—men or women—are really the “whole package.” And by “whole package,” I mean someone who is technically brilliant (they can do hardware, they can do software/theory, they can do anything they put their mind to!) and also a gifted communicator, manager, etc. Most people are stronger in one aspect or the other … and I’m not sure it makes sense to generalize. (On this I’m with Charles Gervasi.)

I’m also not a fan of “selling” engineering (or any other science) to women or other groups. See, chemistry can be used to make cosmetics, so it’s totally something girls should be into! I find approaches like this quite insulting and, ultimately, I think they’re counterproductive. If someone is going to fall in love with math or physics or engineering, let it be for the right reasons, the ones that will sustain them through a difficult course of study and challenging career. All we have to do is make sure that everyone who has an interest has a fair shot (a lot easier said than done, I know!).


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