Do Women Think Engineering Isn't "Cool"?

by Kim Allen

Articles about women-- or the lack thereof-- in science/engineering are always popular in the science press. Why? Because they kill two birds with one stone. They show that the community is paying attention to 'women's issues' and hence can't be accused of male chauvinism or pure androcentrism. But at the same time they imply that it is women who are the problem ("why aren't women interested in science?"; "why do girls perform more poorly than boys on the math SAT?"), which deflects attention from the larger issues that in fact involve both genders.

This way of framing the 'women-in-science problem' is nothing more than carefully cultivated blindness to the true issues, which relate to the culture norms of science/engineering, who understands these norms best, and who has control of their design and enforcement. That's a whole book in itself. What I want to talk about here is a recent article in IEEE The Institute newsletter (July 2000). Dr. Jennifer Hwu, an Associate Professor at the University of Utah, writes about how we need to change the 'image' of engineers in order to attract more women to the discipline. Unfortunately, she has completely missed the larger picture.

Here is a link to the article. Although the first paragraph is fine, I was stopped cold by the very next sentence:

'Girls are generally more conscious about how other people think about them than boys. It is very possible that this fundamental difference between men and women is driving the difference between the sexes in viewing engineering as a career.'

If you think this is a sweeping generalization with little basis in reality, try reading a little farther down. Then you get stuff like this:

'One needs to appreciate the fact that, for a long time, other countries -- including some Asian ones that are now heavily competing with America in technology development -- did not place as much an emphasis on individual identity, social acceptance and personal image. We suffer greatly from the fact that youth adapt to and accept the idea that 'looks,' much more than brains, contribute to being socially successful. We should note that, in many other countries, youth become socially successful through their excellent academic work in school. As a society, America places too much emphasis on 'being cool' rather than 'being sharp.'

'...In most Asian countries, even before children know exactly what engineers do, they declare engineering a career choice. This is based on the respect that their societies have for science and engineering. My own experience is a perfect example of that as I declared myself a future engineer long before I really knew what it meant.'


I read this article because I heard it was 'good' from a number of women engineers, but I must seriously disagree. This article is full of logical holes and misleading arguments.

Let's just start at the beginning. The author explains that engineering careers don't attract women because engineering isn't 'cool' and girls are more aware of social acceptability than boys are. Thus, engineering loses out to 'cool' careers like medicine, law, and business. That's a fine argument, but it does very little to explain the past dominance and continued prevalence of men in such careers as medicine, law, and business.

Also, she makes two explicit references to how Asian countries have less of this 'geek' problem than America does because Asian countries tend to de-emphasize individuality, and emphasize 'sharp' over 'cool'. That would be a fine argument if the world were teeming with Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian female engineers... but it isn't. If anything, the most successful countries in getting women into science were the Eastern bloc countries. Why were they more successful than Communist China and socialist Northern Europe? (That's a rhetorical question; I think this is the wrong way to think about it).

And after all that illogic, her conclusion is that the way to make engineering acceptable to women is to improve its image, so that women can go into it without worrying what others will think of them. I think this is hogwash. The reason engineering is uncomfortable for women is not because the field itself is uncool-- it's because it's uncool for girls. Girls don't have to be 'more sensitive to what others think of them' to be turned off by engineering. [There are fewer male hairdressers and kindergarten teachers than female engineers. Does this prove that men are more sensitive than women about 'what people think of them?' Yeah, that must be it].

The issue of low numbers of women in engineering is just one more manifestation of the male standard and the patriarchal separation of activities for men and women. The jobs that are considered 'cool' in general are the ones that cool for men. And the jobs that women do cannot be considered cool. This creates a major conflict for women, and it ain't gonna get better by a conscious effort to 'improve the image' of engineers as a whole.

I get so tired of these articles that basically say, 'Gee, women don't seem to be entering this highly-paid, high-status career. Why not? Girls just don't seem interested. What's the matter with these girls?'

What's the matter? You're asking them to buck social customs! You're asking them to do something that the entire society is constructed to discourage them from doing. Don't ask what's wrong with those who don't enter fields like this-- ask how the ones who made it acquired such incredibly strong will.

Everyone cares about 'social acceptability'-- we're only human, and we're social creatures. It just happens that for men, there is no conflict. Powerful, high-paying, interesting careers are conveniently also socially acceptable-- how nice! For women, it's a different story. We must choose the career or the femininity.

I think the author of that article completely missed the larger picture.

Copyright © 2000 by Kim Allen

06/03/07 at 14:26