In a New York Times op-ed, Lina Nilsson bemoans the lack of women in engineering. This has been a long-standing issue that seems to befuddle so many, given that our society has grown so dependent on scientific endeavors that the lack of adequate representation by gender produces a host of problematic disparities.
As Christina Hoff Sommers notes, one of the underpinnings of the wage gap between men and women is that women chose lower paying occupations, which are then grouped with better paying occupations to create the appearance of a gap. Engineering pays pretty well. Neither majors in medieval poetry nor critical feminist theory follow a similar pay path in employment. Go figure.
Nilsson kinda, sorta, offers explanations for the lack of women in engineering:
Why are there so few female engineers? Many reasons have been offered: workplace sexism, a lack of female role models, stereotypes regarding women’s innate technical incompetency, the difficulties of combining tech careers with motherhood. Proposed fixes include mentor programs, student support groups and targeted recruitment efforts.
Notably, she forces dismissal of the notion that women just aren’t good in STEM-type subjects by characterizing it as a stereotype. Everybody knows that we’re not allowed to believe in stereotypes, because that makes us bad people. Why it’s a stereotype, on the other hand, remains undiscussed, despite studies showing that women are stronger in verbal skills than men, and men are stronger in math and science, though not to the preclusion of women performing well enough to be engineers.
But maybe one solution is much simpler, and already obvious. An experience here at the University of California, Berkeley, where I teach, suggests that if the content of the work itself is made more societally meaningful, women will enroll in droves. That applies not only to computer engineering but also to more traditional, equally male-dominated fields like mechanical and chemical engineering.
Maybe? Or, as philosophers might respond, maybe not. Maybe the reason women do not pick engineering as a career is that they don’t want to be engineers. Maybe, as Nilsson’s experience suggests, they want to make the world a better place because that does interest women (even though she indulges in the same sort of facile stereotype that she dismisses when it’s not flattering to women).
What that means is utterly unclear, as “societally meaningful” seems to be entirely dependent on what people feel about things. There are a great many views as to what constitutes “societally meaningful,” and Nilsson neglects to define this phrase suggesting that it’s a fixed concept. Perhaps what she means is that all women inherently get it, though men are clueless as to right and wrong, good and evil. But so what? Women are allowed to want what they want, right? And so what if Nilsson keeps pigeonholing women in stereotypes, as long as they’re her preferred stereotypes.
But if a person, regardless of gender, is to be an engineer, then they must still learn the math and science required of the job. No one wants to walk across a bridge built by an engineer who was more concerned that it served a societally beneficial purpose than it was capable of withstanding the torque caused by wind gusts.
Women seem to be drawn to engineering projects that attempt to achieve societal good.
At the interdisciplinary D-Lab at M.I.T., which focuses on developing “technologies that improve the lives of people living in poverty,” 74 percent of over 230 enrolled students this past year were women. This makes the D-Lab one of the few engineering initiatives in the country that has a severalfold higher enrollment of women than men.
That’s cool. There is nothing wrong with people, women, wanting to put their skills to use in ways they feel are societally beneficial. But then, the 170 women enrolled in the D-Lab at MIT had already chosen engineering, and demonstrated sufficient strength and interest in the disciplines to be at MIT in the first place.
In other words, Nilsson relies on the endgame when the problem is the inflow of women into engineering. After all, if women sought an engineering education in equal proportion to men, they would be engineers coming out of college in equal proportion to men. Once they’re already there, where they prefer to apply their education doesn’t change the fact that they are already studying engineering.
What does all this show? It shows that the key to increasing the number of female engineers may not just be mentorship programs or child care centers, although those are important. It may be about reframing the goals of engineering research and curriculums to be more relevant to societal needs. It is not just about gender equity — it is about doing better engineering for us all.
And that’s where the fallacy of the logic goes off the rails. What Nilsson is arguing is that women are the very stereotype she pretends they’re not, that women would be engineers if it felt like a more warm and fuzzy profession that was “more relevant to societal needs.” It’s not that engineering isn’t inherently relevant to societal needs, because of course it is, but that the societal needs of which she speaks are the ones that align with feelings of social justice rather than the ones that keep tall buildings from falling down.
Be an engineer to feed the starving, to bring water to the thirsty, to build bridges in the underserved third world nations, create devices to eradicate tropical diseases. These are all fine goals, and if an engineer’s interest is in putting her skills and education to use in these ways, great. You go, girl.
But you still have to first be an engineer. You have to study all the science, all the math, all the drudgery that goes into possessing the knowledge and skills that make for a competent engineer. And women, like men, have to first decide that this is what they want to go to school to learn. There is no engineering discipline that focuses on appreciating social justice, with no need for learning the boring stuff like thermodynamics.
How Nilsson would alter the interest of women to study engineering rather than more “social” science remains a mystery. Perhaps she would put up posters in high school with pictures of starving women that proclaim, become an engineer and bring food to the hungry? Would this interest girls in studying engineering?
What does not exist, however, is any cabal barring the door to a well-paying engineering career so that women cannot enter. And what cannot be the solution is any watering down of the curriculum so that socially-minded women will be excused from the disinteresting aspects of the course of study, because they don’t feel it socially relevant.
There are about as many women students at MIT as men, because they get the pick of the litter. As for the rest, no one can force women to become something they don’t want to become. And no one can create a path to engineering that is longer on social relevance than science and math. That’s what being an engineer is, no matter how one chooses to put it to use afterward. If enough women aren’t interested in learning engineering, then there won’t be enough women emerging from engineering schools no matter what carrot is on the end of the stick.
Does this interest women? I hope so, but it’s not up to me. It’s up to women. Women get to make their own choices, just as men do, and then they will be responsible for the same math and science drudgery that must be endured to become an engineer, even if they intend to put it to use for social justice.