Engineering: Must women “be” men?

We were all gathered around celebrating the retirement of our friend, a female Vice President of a large fortune 500 semiconductor company. (I will use the pseudonym Carol to protect her identity.) Carol had been a mentor and champion for me, and I was honored to have been invited to celebrate her career. At the party that evening, Carol called me over to introduce me to another woman she had mentored. The woman was ecstatic to tell Carol of an incredible promotion she’d just received. As they chatted, I stood there listening and reveling in the excitement of another female engineer climbing the ranks in a male dominated field. There are so few, you know. Then Carol told her mentee, “Remember what I taught you; Be a man.” I was completely stunned. This was so far from all of the advice that Carol had ever given me. Before even thinking, I blurted out, “Carol, what are you saying? Why would you say that?” Carol turned to me, heavy hearted. I felt as if I could see the pain in her eyes from decades of battling the “old boys club.” “Meagan, I want better for you. I want the environment to change and be different for you. But for now, this is the only way a woman gets ahead in this industry.” The paradox she offered me was optimistically hopeful for change, but depressingly realistic still. This was the beginning of 2009, and the weight of her words have lingered heavily on my mind ever since.

What does this mean for young female engineers? What did this mean for me? Was the environment really likely to change enough in a handful of years to allow me to be myself and not have to “be a man?” Would someday, the hegemonic masculinity of this culture magically change and welcome me as a woman?

The end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 were hard times for many industries (see Bloody Monday, January 27, 2009). There was an exodus of almost all of the senior female leadership at this time from the company that employed me. My mentor, along with several other women who were not at retirement age, accepted healthy retirement packages, leaving a gaping hole in female executive representation at the company. At the time, I wondered why all of the top engineering women were leaving, as likely did a lot of people. Some would surmise the package was too good to pass up, others would guess they are all off to bigger and better things. I wonder though, were they just tired of fighting? Were they tired of trying “to be men” to get ahead?

If “belonging to the club” is what it takes, it is hardly surprising that women engineers tend to drop out or to lose out in career terms, especially when the entry of women is (still) greeted with hostility by many engineers [Faulker, p 108]. After all, in 2007, I had a senior technical manager at this same company tell me one day in the hall, “You know, you were only hired because you were a woman.” Murray [1993] supposes that the entry of women in technology challenges what it means to be a man. Why else would this manager say such an unnecessary thing to me? I experienced seemingly undeserved hostility from him on many occasions.  Was this his way of telling me I didn’t belong? Was I only invited to participate because I enabled “diversity?”

Diversity is a common buzz word in industry, and in my non-scientific personal examination of people’s perception of the idea, the most animosity of the matter is stirred among white males. While white male privilege has been the historical norm, the notion of diversity makes them feel, even at a subconscious level, as if they are being pushed out, and who wants to feel that? Because of the national demand for more engineers, and the disparity of women, African Americans, and Hispanics in these industries, one solution is to increase the participation of these groups, or increase the “diversity.” Then the case is often made that diversity allows for greater problem solving and variation of thought, as if the idea of equity isn’t enough. In Wendy Faulkner’s paper, The power and the pleasure? A research agenda for “making gender stick” to engineers, she writes that “the “diversity” position builds implicitly on an assumption that women by being women bring different approaches and priorities – an assumption that many see as dangerously essentialist [p 100, emphasis added].” Does this mean that all women think the same? We are all caring nurturers, multi-taskers, and collaborators? No, all women do not think/act the same, in the same way all men don’t think/act the same. Regarding the advice Carol offered her mentee, “Be a man,” does this suggest that women by being women aren’t good enough to be succeed in engineering?

The hegemonic masculinity of engineering culture is the problem. Not women. Not diversity. The structure of gender in this environment is the oppressive source. The people, participants, or in this case employees of the engineering industry, are just following suit. Sorenson [1992] has discovered evidence that “both women and men engineers become socialized into their employers’ values and priorities once they have been working in industry a few years [via Faulkner pg 103].” While it is both politically incorrect and unlikely for any employer to explicitly value and prioritize white male culture over anything different, the existing culture or environment still implicitly does. Thus men and women engineers are socialized into an androcentric culture that despairingly perpetuates itself. How then can we have hope it will change?

Just like Carol had advised me, she was hopeful it would be different some day. She mentored me as if the environment was already welcome to me, but what she was masking was that it isn’t. Another mentor of mine, a recently (and early) retired engineer who was the top technical woman in the same company, once told me when I asked about some of the challenges she’s faced along the way in her career, she succinctly summarized, “Well, it’s been pretty much a man’s world in the company.” I haven’t asked her directly, but maybe she retired early like the others because she was just tired of being a woman in a man’s world. When might engineering be a woman’s world?

The scenario presents to me like the chicken and the egg. When more women are engineers, the environment could change, but to get more women to enter and stay in, the environment has to change. I don’t have a solution, but Faulkner offers a great piece of advice: “We need to “learn to count past two” — past the two popular choices that either see women as the same as men, and so deny gender, or see women as different from men, and so treat gender as fixed [p 102].” Perhaps then, the politics of diversity will make it more acceptable for women to be who they are as engineers rather than deny all differences, and just “Be a Man.”

References

Faulkner, W. (2000). “The power and the pleasure? A research agenda for “making gender stick” to engineers.” Science, Technology & Human Values 25(1): 87-119.

Murray, F. (1993). A separate reality: Science technology and masculinity. Gendered by design? Information technology and office systems. E. Green, J. Owen and D. Pain. London, Taylor & Francis: 64-80.

Sorenson, K. H. (1992). “Towards a feminized technology? Gendered values in the construction of technology.” Social Studies of Science 22: 5-31.

 

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