Do you work in the cafeteria? No, I am an engineer. *ROLE MODELS NEEDED!

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“Excuse me, ma’am, do you work in the cafeteria?” inquired a curious pre-teen female of me after watching an interactive skit during Take Your Kids to Work Day at Texas Instruments in 2008. I had one of the lead roles in a skit demonstrating how the technology of the digital micromirror device works while I was an engineer for DLP at TI.  Many of the day’s festivities took place in the conference rooms surrounding the South Building Cafeteria, so imagine my surprise when this young girl approached me afterward to ask me such a presumptuous question.

I am not sure what gave her the impression I worked in the cafeteria, particularly since I was in the skit and not serving her lunch. However, if the only example of an engineer is her father and perhaps his colleagues, then perhaps it is not surprising that this young girl didn’t imagine me as being an engineer. After all, women represent only 12.9% of the engineering workforce.

A Problem: Implicit Bias Associates Science with Males more than with Females

Strong implicit biases associated with gender and science influence early socialization and perpetuate gender stereotypes. Work out of Harvard finds that 70% of more than half a million Implicit Association Tests completed by citizens of 34 countries revealed implicit stereotypes associating science with males more than with females. The fact is, everyone has biases, and the biases against women in science is strong. It is important for each of us to become aware of our biases so that we can adjust our behavior, and discontinue the perpetuation of gender stereotypes which will continue to limit the futures of younger generations, particularly the view that a woman is better seen working in the cafeteria than as an engineer.

Take the Implicit Association Test to find out your bias relating to gender, careers and science. Let your score inform you and inspire you to influence change!

A Solution: Role Models

What courage it took for the girl to ask me this question. If there were ever a call to action, then this experience was it for me.  While I do not remember my response as well as I remember her question, I do remember responding with pride, that I did not in fact work in the cafeteria, but I was an engineer like her father. (Who happened to be standing beside her at the moment.) I also recall saying that women can be engineers, too. And our young girls need to see and meet MORE women engineers in their lives! With an absence of role models, many girls tend to view science and technology an unsuitable career choice and personally irrelevant to their lives. However, research shows that exposing girls to role models helps to alleviate some of these barriers.

I imagine that the young girl in this story is approaching high school graduation now. My hope is that as she is exploring future careers, that she looks back on this day.  I hope that the day she confused a female engineer for a cafeteria worker, is as branded in her mind as it is mine. I hope that she can identify engineering as a great career option her and for all women. I hope that I can continue to be a role model for young females (see a thank you note from one female below), and that more of us will take the challenge and inspire a new generation of proud female engineers.

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