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Last week NPR ran a story about how women leave engineering because everyone it's an unsuitable climate for women. I've ranted about these kinds of stories before (are STEM fields too mean for women?) and just realized they have something in common. They're based on bad studies. It's pretty easy to recognize a bad study, too, because there's never a control. In other words they'll interview a bunch of women who left engineering, but they won't interview men who left engineering, and they won't interview women who stayed in engineering, and they won't interview women who left other fields. The authors go in with a sensationalist argument, interview whoever they can to back it up, and somehow make the news.

There's science reporting for you.

I would like to take a moment to make a plug for SWE. The whole question of "why are women a minority in engineering" has been asked before. It's a complicated question. There isn't a simple answer.

But every year, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) examines the dozens of notable studies around the question and publishes a literature review - the review of 2013 was completed and added in the spring of 2014. It's big reading. It's complicated. But if you want to figure out the puzzle of women in engineering, that's where I think you should start.

This year the first few pages make you think SWE is just tired of reviewing the same ideas by new authors who've never read anyone else's studies... they make a plea for academics to study fields outside academia, stress the need to ask questions around the intersectionality of race and gender, and mention (yes) lack of controls in many studies. But they find some good stuff that was published too... feminist critiques of engineering, programs for girls, engineer identity trends. And they find that just like in other fields, women leave engineering because they don't like their boss, don't find meaning in their work, or just have other interests. Are there things engineering could do to be more accommodating? Sure. But articles like the NPR report, that are all about how engineering is hostile, are not very well founded.

And they run the risk of scaring away some women who'd be great engineers because they don't aren't featuring any successes... if a woman likes her job in STEM, that's too boring to make a headline.

People have a tendency to criticize movements for being unorganized, even if they've never tried to be part of the organization. Don't do this to SWE, I'm telling you. My membership may be 12 years so yeah, I'm biased, but the work they do is important and the research is fascinating. Don't oversimplify this, and don't skip over the work others have done.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
mark356
Aug. 19th, 2014 09:49 am (UTC)
The thing that bugged me about that NPR article was the stat it quoted: only 62% of women who have STEM degrees stay in the field. As a liberal arts major, I think that's high, not low. What percentage of English majors end up as scriptwriters or English teachers? What percentage of Philosophy majors end up as professional philosophers? What percentage of History majors end up as historians, museum curators, or research archaeologists? Even in my case (Japanese major), although it is possible that I may become a translator or bilingual aide (fingers crossed!), it's not at all a given, and plenty of my classmates had far less comfort with the language after four years than I did. 62% is huge.
mrs_dragon
Aug. 24th, 2014 04:41 am (UTC)
UGH. The morning this story broke (and it was on several channels) my boss noted it and volunteered to send it to me "in case I could use it for SWE." And while it was sweet of him to think of me, it was such an awful case of mansplaining. A) Yes, I'm up on the studies, because, unlike you I pay attention to this stuff ALL THE TIME not just when it hits MSN and B) I disagree with the tone/tenor of this one but thanks.

So I responded by sending him some links to better researched and more well rounded studies, including SWE. I've just now sent him the link to the full literature review too.

Sigh. He meant well at least.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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