June 1st, 2013

planet

are STEM fields too mean for women?

This article has been making the rounds in the women engineer discussions lately: Class of 2013: What's Pushing Women Out of the Sciences.

It's a short piece based on a thesis project on why there aren't more women in engineering. Women who'd once pursued STEM fields but later dropped out were interviewed about what drove them away, and most of them said they just didn't like the competitive culture, the weed-out classes, unsupportive professors, etc. The author then argues that starting at the university level, engineering needs to be more collaborative and less about proving who's the best.

I have two thoughts. First off, I agree with the author that collaboration is missing in curriculum. In my classes, professors would attempt to simulate workplace environments by assigning group projects... and they were awful, and entirely unhelpful. You know how it is. Four people you don't know tackle a project that's new to all of us, one smart kid takes over, one slacker kid doesn't do shit, you all get the same grade, everyone gets that awful taste in their mouth to learn what it means to "share". It doesn't resemble the workplace at all, where team members are required to pull their weight and are brought into a project based on their experience and what they can learn from it.

Workplace collaboration is an important skill, but it's much more about what you can teach others, not who you can give credit to. I've seriously considered having my team do presentations to one another just to practice this, because these skills are so underdeveloped in new engineers. It doesn't matter what you can memorize, it matters how you can communicate today's project to the CEO who wants a five second explanation for him, then a 20 minute presentation to his team, then a one-hour training class for interested department members.

So yes, there's an opportunity for improvement there.

On the other hand, I hated reading that women are being driven out of STEM because it's "too mean". I have to say that the environment in my first engineering classes was something I needed: it made me tough. It was challenging, but when I got through it I felt confident and proud of myself. I just had to get past that initial conflict about whether I was really smart enough, or "engineer" enough, to make it... and sometimes I even still have hangups, but a few successes have given me comfort.

So really what's the problem? Is STEM too mean for women, or are women being told that we shouldn't competitive in a "mean" field?

We're told to be careful, told to play nice, my high school even got rid of our annual girls football game when I was there because it "got too competitive". Who knows what subtle messages we're confronted with again and again as we grow up... I know it's happening. It's good old "Feminine Mystique" material: we're surrounded by legends of men finding their way in the world, they're supposed to be challenged and come out bruised but stronger on the other side. But women's choices are limited, so we're not worrying our pretty heads too much. We'll just get so stressed trying to "have it all", we're told. Why can't those mean feminists just let women relax?

There seems to be a complicated pile of issues that maintain the unbalanced gender ratios. Image issues about what an engineer "is", issues that other competitive fields like law and business don't have. Culture issues about what a woman "should be"... unchallenged, noncombative, careful. And between all these is the conflict I've always had, that the sociology of feminism hasn't found its place among the people in hard sciences, building walls that keep out the really good questions we should be asking ourselves.