February 15th, 2013

planet

getting crafty girls into engineering

This past year Etsy has been putting more effort into reaching out to potential women engineers in an effort to increase the diversity of their technical staff. I blogged about it before, pointing out the fact that it's a very smart thing for Etsy to do, business-wise, considering how many of their customers are women. So this week someone started a thread about more ways to increase the number of female engineers, namely reaching out to other girls, and it got an oddly high number of responses.

Of course it took less than a page for someone to bring up the tired old argument about how women's brains are just wired for "softer" jobs that involve people's feelings or whatever, it's a typical response that I hear a lot, "God has made us what we are, the world is what it is, why try to change it, why are you feminists always in denial about the fact that women are biologically different from men" etc etc etc. And then people like me bring up the same facts about how every woman you see today has been raised in our biased society, or how it's not fair to say ALL women are wired *this way*, or the countless studies that confirm that our brains really aren't that different, or the fact that it's really a cop-out response to say "the world is what it is, let's always look back in time for how we should be living" because history has shown this not to be true.

Then Pam from Just Dwell brought up a point worth blogging on... isn't it interesting that even on Etsy, a site dominated by WOMEN WHO MAKE THINGS, we're debating whether women have the brains to make things?

Word. The whole debate happening over there just highlights how biased we are against what an engineer IS. I stumbled into engineering partly by accident, on a vague hunch that I could do it. It wasn't until a few tests came back and group labs revealed that the guys sitting around talking about car stereos were not WAY ahead of me like I thought they were. It's just that we're all trained to associate men's hobbies with the technical world, making women less likely to jump in and try things, making them feel like the learning curve for all of it is a mountain. So 18 year old boys who don't know what to do with their lives shrug and say "Eh, guess I'll be an engineer, that doesn't look like too big a deal." And 18 year old girls shrug and say "Eh, guess I'll major is psychology."

I'm not saying that's not a worthwhile career, or that traditionally "female" jobs like teaching, nursing, etc deserve to be as undervalued as they are in some parts of the country. I'm just saying I was shocked in high school by the strikingly different "default" choices by kids who just weren't pulled too hard in any one direction, it's like if a girl wanted to go into engineering she had to really explain and justify that she KNEW she'd was born to do it, where as a guy could just choose it because it looked like it had promising hiring potential.

I became an engineer, kept sewing in my free time, but hid it because I didn't think my hobby was "geeky" enough. And it wasn't until almost a decade in that it struck me that what I was doing for fun WAS technical, or maybe it was my friend mrs_dragon pointing out how much math it takes to make a quilt... I've been making stuff since I can remember. Why was I ever afraid that my brain wasn't naturally wired to do problem solving, like I'd really have to prove myself?

I've seen toddler girls pushing buttons on a remote control and heard people say "Oh she likes shiny things!", where an hour later a boy will do it and "Oh he's going to be an engineer!". I've seen people give their daughters all makeup kits for Christmas while their sons get remote control cars, everything is coded and separated and really obvious. That's the world we live in.

But it's not a giant leap from the hands-on creative arts to the hands-on troubleshooting an airplane, and that's the word we need to try and get out. It's time to stop equating crafts with a lack of engineering skills, just because of the way the genders have traditionally chosen careers... that will really help with the confidence barriers keeping girls from joining the technology world.