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Stop telling boys to go into STEM December 18, 2014

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

Stereotyping is always a bad thing, and most people don’t realize that men suffer just as badly from stereotypes as women.

Let’s look at science: there has been a ton of work going into how to attract girls and women into scientific endeavors, particularly those that are very math-intensive.  Much of the discussion centers on countering two issues: the first is the societal expectations that women go into ‘caring’ professions like teaching and nursing and the second is the stereotype that men are better at math.  There is nothing wrong with these efforts, but there’s a flip side to this stereotype that has a negative impact on men: there are a lot of men who go into STEM fields (probably engineering moreso than science) that probably don’t belong there.

Lest you think I’m just being negative toward men, this is actually something a man told me.  I had an English professor who was one of the best college teachers I’d had, I think in part because he was very knowledgeable in science.  In fact, he’d received a degree in engineering from Stanford but then shuffled around for several years before finally getting a master’s degree in English.  During one conversation, I asked him why he got a degree in engineering when he really loved literature.

There’s a strong expectation that if you’re a smart boy who’s good at math, you’re going to go into engineering.  That’s what everyone expected, so that’s what I did.

During the course of my teaching career, I’ve seen a lot of this.  I like to have students write me an introductory essay so that I can learn more about them and what they were hoping to learn from the class.  Many of them reiterated almost exactly what my professor said: “I went into engineering because I was told it was a good career for someone with good math skills.”

I’m not saying it’s not a good career for someone with math skills of either gender.  However, making a career choice should not be an either/or proposition based on problem-solving ability (lots of careers use that), and people are multi-faceted.  People can be good at math as well as art, literature, music, biology, communication, caring for others, etc.  Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that’s what your calling is nor necessarily where you should focus your energy.

While the majority of my best students were men, strictly as a result of the skewed sex ratio in my classes, the women were almost always in the top 20% of the class.  None of them were there simply because they were good at math: they almost always really wanted to be an engineer.  However, the least engaged students were always men: a lot of them were there because they hadn’t found their passion and felt they had to do something.  Engineering was it.

The flip side of the ‘men are good at math’ stereotype is that many of them go into it even when they would be much better off doing something else.  They’re discouraged from pursuing more ‘feminine’ careers and made to feel like failures if they don’t enjoy it.

So do the boys a favor: if they’re not sure where they want to go, don’t make engineering the default answer even if they are good at math.




1. nicoleandmaggie - December 18, 2014

I dunno. Passion is over-rated and it’s pretty hard for a lot of people to find a passion in something that actually pays well. Far better to go into engineering where they’ll end up with an above-average salary than into another field (like physics) that they’ll dislike and be equally mediocre at but make less money. And for most people, going into rock music or professional sports or magic the gathering playing doesn’t make enough to live on. If you’re going to have to do an 8-5 job for the rest of your life and you’re good at math, engineering isn’t a bad option. Heck, my BIL is even union. Sure, my sister would rather be working for a company with soul, but she prefers making >100K/year to making <100K/year.

The alternative isn't making a big amount of money at something you love for the majority of these people. It's making a smaller amount of money at something they are equally ambivalent about or not being able to survive doing something they love. As an engineer you can play in a rock band on the weekends and you can afford to buy the equipment.


mareserinitatis - December 18, 2014

Believe it or not, I’m not saying that one needs to follow their passion: I’m opposed to using stereotypes to determine career choices. Career choices need to be pragmatic, but if someone hasn’t shown a great interest, it’s not a good idea to push them that way.

If a boy has mathematical ability, they’re often than not told that they should go into engineering when they really have no interest in building or designing things. In other words, they’re being told to go into a field that does require a passion in order to get through, and a lot of them don’t make it. Almost every engineering program I’ve heard of had, at one point in their history a little routine for incoming freshman saying, “Look to your left and then your right. Two of you won’t make it through the program.” And for the most part, they’re right.

The pay range for accounting is about the same as engineering and accounting requires math, often with a less crazy workload. The math is more similar to what they’ve encountered in high school math classes. But that’s a field dominated by women, so they’ll choose engineering instead.

The problem is that we’re encouraging a lot of men to go into a field where they really have no interest (and some of whom don’t have the ability) while discouraging competent and interested women from doing so. Both of those are problems, and they’re both rooted in stereotypes.


nicoleandmaggie - December 18, 2014

Engineering is more interesting than accounting. You can be mildly interested in something without having a passion for it. And engineering *doesn’t* require a passion. And engineering pays better.

People also don’t make it in accounting. And the undergraduate teaching is terrible in both fields. It’s a wonder that anybody gets through either. Passion is not being sparked within engineering classes and a lot of people lose that desire because of terrible first year classes. (But you have to decide to go into engineering before university starts, so how do you know? If I had to decide on what to major in before college I never would have gone into economics. Because how would I know?)

If we only encouraged people who had a passion to go into engineering, we would an even bigger shortage of engineers than we have now, and salaries would be way higher.

Also nobody would work for Exxon. Or Caterpillar.

Growing up, I bought the “do what you love and the money will follow” line– my mom is a humanities professor. But then I married into my husband’s family and I see that is an incredibly privileged motto. Engineering is a ticket from an unstable stream of dead-end jobs that you hate and pay nothing into the upper-middle-class. And it beats working the factory floor or food-service. Yes, it is a lottery, but it’s a lottery well worth trying out if you’re good at math.

And yes, we should encourage more women and stop being sexist jerks to the ones who are already there so that the marginal woman is also there for the money and job security.

Incidentally, my FIL is an accountant. And the reason my husband is no longer a professor is mainly because the students demoralized him. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still need more engineering students rather than fewer. If I ruled the world, we’d have much better university classes and there would be more prep in high school.

And really, dropping out of engineering and ending up in social science (which is the standard path here– engineering, engineering technology, social science) isn’t the end of the world. Plenty of former pre-meds take the same path. But they don’t know that it isn’t going to work until they’ve had a chance to try it.


mareserinitatis - December 19, 2014

You may want to have a gander at these:



Engineering is really not that great a career choice, and most of the “we need more stem graduates” comes from places like the academies of science and engineering, full of professors who aren’t getting the grad students they need to pump out research. Most people I know above age 40 are in danger of being outsourced (if they haven’t been already) or have an extremely difficult time changing jobs within the field. About half of the people I know who went into engineering in college are now in other fields. Available jobs are geographically limited. (There are virtually no jobs here for my career field and, if my current job changes, I would likely have to go to the east coast or Asia to find something even close to what I work in now.) Further, the market is flooded with H1B visas, suppressing wages. (If you care to look through the posts at EngineerBlogs, these topics were covered on many, many occasions.) Accounting, by contrast, is far more stable, not geographically limiting, and pays about the the same.

We already have more engineers than we know what to do with. It’s really not a good career choice unless you are passionate about it because, chances are, you’re going to have to end up switching fields, anyway. About 1/2 to 1/3 of the students who do manage to make it through don’t find work in the field. It’s really not worth the effort because the degree tends to require more effort than a lot of other majors. http://college.usatoday.com/2011/11/23/study-reveals-engineering-majors-spend-significantly-more-time-studying-2/

Again, I’m not opposed to people trying things: I’m frustrated with the fact that competent women are pushed away from engineering while mediocre men are pushed toward it.


2. lukeholzmann - December 19, 2014

I recently saw something — I think you posted it, but I’m not sure — that talked about how guys go into fields or apply for positions even if they are only mildly good at it. I could see that coming into play here as well. I was pretty good at math in high school and so I figured Engineering was in my future (yep, I was one of those). Thankfully, my parents nudged me down a different path that far better suits my interests, skills, and, indeed, passions [smile].



mareserinitatis - December 19, 2014

I will say that there are a lot of people doing the pushing (teachers, sometimes parents) who say that engineering is a good-paying job and don’t really understand what’s required. I’d say the majority of the “I wasn’t sure what to do so someone suggested engineering” were pushed that way by teachers. You could be right, though.

When I’ve suggested young women go into engineering, though, I’ve often gotten a lot of “are you crazy?” responses. That’s the kind of thing that gets on my nerves.


lukeholzmann - December 22, 2014

The “are you crazy” responses should get on everyone’s nerves. That’s so disappointing. That kind of response is one of the reasons I really appreciate Dr. Sax’s “Why Gender Matters” book so much; he makes a strong case that these biases are heavily influenced by a misunderstanding of gender differences, and once we recognize them, we can encourage boys and girls to go into fields traditionally counter-cultural and help them thrive.

I very much appreciate your continued call that we not allow gender to limit or shoehorn us. Keep up the great work.



iiiii - November 26, 2015

This is a very late drive-by reply, but:

In a parallel reply to mareserinitatis, you claimed that Sax’s book made a “strong case” that there are (presumably “innate”) “gender differences” between boys and girls. I came across Sax’s work while reading more about the (old and ongoing, aggravating, hopefully closed in my lifetime) gender gaps in school grades that slightly disfavor boys and men.

Sax’s work is misleading. Mark Liberman has a series of posts on the Language Log where he dismantles many of Sax’s claims:

Lise Eliot’s “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” is another fine resource.

(This link is not directly related; it highlights another infuriating bit of poppy media: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004878.html)

For whatever it is worth: I was a (male, poor, minority, single-mother-family, pick-a-label) student who enrolled an engineering program because I thought it would pay well. I hated it–despite doing well–and I later took on an extra major in pure math (the good stuff!) and binged on writing classes (the really good stuff!)

I now work in software (the math degree would have been sufficient to unlock entry-level interviews in this field); as a consequence, my family is no longer stuck in poverty. If I had the opportunity to relive that part of my life, I would drop the engineering degree.


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