Spacefem (spacefem) wrote,

Why women engineers should be feminists

I did something wonderful - finally did a speech for the women's group at my company about, well, everything.

Officially it was about Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. Here's what I said:

1) There's this whole idea that pushy feminists want you to "have it all" and won't be happy until you're that frazzled mom with the crying baby spilling your briefcase while you scream on your blackberry and burn dinner (see also: sad white babies with mean feminist mommies). This idea is media fear-mongering bullshit.

2) We need to help each other make sure we're not holding back on our ambitions because our culture is scaring away from stepping up. The best way to help each other: informal mentors. Not the ones you meet with for 30 minutes a week - those are "therapists". No, mentors are leaders whose eyes you catch by being awesome who will accurately assess your strengths and weaknesses, and find cool projects for you to work on.

3) If we're afraid to be ambitious, but leaders look for ambitious people to help, we're in a catch-22. So we need to keep having the conversation around items 1 and 2, and that conversation is called Feminism.

Yes that's right friends, after years of hiding it, I used the f-word at work! A lot! And everyone agreed with me AND sent me nice notes afterwards, and none of the 20 or so attendees stormed out of the room!

I said that women engineers tend to be logical "blend-inners". We can be one of the guys, we don't need feminism, never wanted to be friends with those arts major hippies anyway. There is a great divide between us and the feminists.

But blending in and being an "equalist" puts you at risk for denying the reality that certain people are going to have an easier time feeling like part of the family. I, spacefem, am a straight, white, american born Christian with two college-educated parents. I was raised upper-middle class. I can say that all it takes to fit in here is hard work, and that it's the same for everybody, but that attitude denies that I've got some traits helping me. I might be overlooking the talent in someone else who's not being listened to as much as I am because I'm so busy pretending like "we're all equal here".

The other reason we need to stop just being equalists - the growth of numbers of women in our field has stalled significantly. My department? Less than 6% of the electrical engineers are women. 6%. That SUCKS. And we have no answers to explain why... because we don't even know what questions to ask. Because we've never wanted to be feminists. We need to ask questions about women and society's effect on what women want to do.

I had only worked in engineering for a few months when some guy said I'd do well here because I was a woman (not based on merit - was the unspoken corollary to that). They're going to think it. Any success I have, someone's going to ask why I got the promotion instead of someone else, what's different about me... the first obvious difference is that I'm a woman, because I'm the only one, the token. I can't stop being a woman. I can't hide the fact that I'm a woman.

I could stop being the token woman... if there were other women in my group. And that's why my fellow women engineers & I would be so more successful if the numbers changed.

You'll notice - none of this is about being selfish, hating men, launching a class-action suit or whining about how oppressed I am. This is light stuff. Corporate feminism. But it's a gateway to bigger issues that could help all women, in all classes, races, parts of the world. All we have to do is admit that the stagnant numbers of women engineers may not be a coincidence - that they're worth talking about. Admit that maybe some internal stereotypes are making us afraid to go into fields where women haven't typically gone - because we're afraid that something will be wrong with "the picture", that the thing that's wrong might be us looking frazzled while the baby spills latte on our keyboard. We have to tell the world why engineering is a great field for women, and that feminism is more than just liking women - it's a bigger discussion. A fascinating one. That we should get in on.

That's what I stood up and said today after six years of heavy involvement in a women's network that I helped start - but was always afraid to use to further the feminist cause. I was finally able to be honest and give everyone good concrete reasons for why we were doing what we were doing. I feel awesome about it.
Tags: career, engineering, feminism, women engineers
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