"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Talking about gender and engineering

I typically do not talk so directly about what I get paid to do as a graduate-level academic, but I missed a deadline.  So welcome to a slightly awkward way of getting accountability as an academic.  My need for accountability when writing is why I started blogging.  I needed some proof that I could write a) every day consistently, b) about difficult concepts and c) to advance my own thinking.

So, here we have the question about how to we speak of gender and engineering.  Perhaps surprisingly, it’s a harder thing to do than it first sounds like.  “Everyone” knows that engineering tends to be a male-dominated field.  You can find scary statistics quoted all of the time that women compromise somewhere between 12-20% of engineering populations depending on how you define the population (engineering students? engineers in management? people working as ‘engineers’?) and who you ask (the National Science Foundation actually has a congressional mandate to keep track of these statistics in the United States but other organizations report the numbers as well).  Generally speaking, the conversation stops there.

It’s really rather sad when you think about it, but I’ve had my head in this particular conversation for nearly two years now.  We might discuss how to “increase women’s participation” or we might lament the numbers, but we’re not really asking the deeper epistemological question of “Why?”  Asking “Why” requires some framework to structure the question.  Demographics tend not to be so helpful.

With all of the talk coming out of Arizona on immigration, people are thinking about immigration demographics.  Persons of Hispanic descent have remarkably high concentrations in Arizona, Florida, California, Texas, Minnesota, and New York.  If you read the list carefully, I hope you did not get to the end of the list without asking “Why” in a couple of key places.  Minnesota generally has had assistance to asylum seekers; JFK in New York City serves as a gateway to immigration from all over the globe.  Demographics can help us identify places to ask interesting questions, but demographics do not succeed in telling an explanatory study.

The demographics of engineering suggest the presence of interesting questions.  But we need to be asking the questions about engineering.  Additionally, we should ask questions about gender.  What does it mean that engineering is male-dominated?  Is the question a question about the bodies in the room?  Or is it about the problems engineering tries to address?  Or is it about the way engineers approach problems?  Or is it about how engineering gets marketed?  Or is it because a sense of maleness provides some differentiation from other fields?  “Maleness” provides additional insights beyond “male-dominated.”  Within maleness, we find a descriptive quality on par with masculine and feminine.  Asking questions about gender help guide questions about engineering to perhaps a more intriguing space.  After all, researchers build careers presumably because they are intrigued and can convince other people to be interested in the same intriguing question.  Let’s be real: research costs money.  Most academics are not the “independently-wealthy” types.

Engineering hides in certain places.  Trying to provide an example for you led me to this incredibly cheesy Sanford appliance commercial.  It was posted in March 2009.  What do you notice? 

The commercial was so bad, so tragically awkward that I had to post it.  Welcome to 1950s American domesticity on display!  (I really hope that you took a minute to watch the advert.)  But amidst crazy sex-typed gender roles and rampant consumerism [the unveiling of the new big screen TV! Classic!], I see engineering.  After all, if not for engineers, then who made all of these electronic devices possible?  Additionally, I have to wonder if I see engineering because I have developed eyes to see where engineering is present.  In this advert, consumerism is much more visible.

But the visibility of consumerism and the invisibility of engineering reflect part and parcel of a much larger problem in our society, namely that we have lost our connection with how things come to be.  We outsource creation of all sorts of things to professionals.  The professionalization of food, for instance, has created whole generations who think that hamburger comes from the grocery store and not from a cow.  The professionalization of our technical economy has created a black, black, black box where we have no idea where stuff comes from.  We just like our stuff.

Today I read a headline from the NY Times that struck my humanity deeper than I can say: “U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan”  As an engineer, I shudder with this news.  Mining, while neat and useful, also destablizes whole ecosystems if not undertaken wisely.  The more profitable risk becomes, the more likely companies take huge risks.  I was sort of encouraged to see the landscape looking as bleak as it does.  But wait.  Amidst this bleak landscape there will be whole towns erected to support the mining industry.  Towns create whole new challenges of infrastructure.  Where will the water come from?  Water cultivates political instability.  And these materials are in Afghanistan.  Yeah, I would be hard-pressed to identify a less politically stable place.  The sheer volume of deposits (estimated at 1 trillion dollars) boggles my mind.  I cannot even guesstimate how many electronic gadgets could be created.  And what are we going to do when the time comes to dispose of all of those electronic gadgets?  Yeah, this news makes me gulp hard as an engineer.

But engineers tend not to be people who gulp hard and become paralyzed.  We tend to try to figure out the best places to start in reasonable fashion, working with a lot of other experts to stare opportunity in the face.  Hopefully the metaphor is a bit odd because the goal of such metaphor is to encourage more reflection.  After all, we should consider the questions in context.  Using a holistic gendered frame can be helpful because of the fairly manageable poles of “masculine” and “feminine.”  We can make the questions a bit more concrete by considering the masculine aspects and feminine aspects of a project.  Granted, we still might employ sexist and stereotypical frames.  Yet, the goal of a framing device is to structure our thinking.  Whether we like it or not, gender tends to structure our corporate/collective ways of thinking in a way that can foster discussion.  [And if you caught the “corporate/collective” device as a way to use gender to structure what I’m talking about, good for you.]

So can we ask interesting and intriguing questions?  Can we be willing to make a fairly naive claim or two about the role of gender to create a deeper dialog?  No one particularly likes to play the fool, but I think that considering problems holistically requires asking seemingly basic questions to clarify the obvious.

One thing that we may find is that trying to detail the masculine and the feminine aspects of things make it important to consider both process and product.  If we can make processes a lot more visible, then I think that we would be much better off instead of entrusting so much to the black box of consumer-orientated production.

Where might be other places where we can see engineering in a more feminine light?


9 responses

  1. Sigrun


    there was quite an interesting article in the magazine of the Times UK newspaper on Saturday about boys’ and girls’ brains. I find the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ very limiting, but I guess they are the terms we have. A lot of the so-called gender differences are down to personality, not gender. One of the MBTI dimensions has a clear 2:1 gender imbalance (how we take decisions, more emotionally or more objectively), but it’s still personality, not gender. I have lots of ‘masculine’ sides to me as well as ‘feminine’ and I think it’s helpful to use more neutral terms to show that it’s ok for males to be caring or whatever and for females to be strong. That would also make it ok for women to be engineers without being accused or thought butch or Lesbian or in-feminine etc.
    My two pence…

    14 June 2010 at 5:42 am

    • I’m pretty sure that I managed to find the article that you referenced re: boys and girls brains. The whole nature/nurture debate can go any myriad of ways, particularly relative to enduring social shifts. It seems like a lot of parents I know tend to be surprised when their girls are very girly girls. One of the features of this discourse is that we do not acknowledge the full humanity of infants. I particularly cringed at the idea of an infant’s brain being so plastic. Yes, an infant takes in an incredible array of stimuli, but an infant is still a human person.

      14 June 2010 at 8:04 am

      • Sigrun

        Yes, indeed, that’s the one – I tried to find it as well, but obviously didn’t try as hard as you did 😉

        14 June 2010 at 12:15 pm

    • For another intriguing recent news around this topic, another friend pointed me to this NY Times article called “Daring to Discuss Women’s Potential in Science

      14 June 2010 at 11:40 pm

  2. Sigrun

    PS Most revolting advert I’ve seen in ages… Might have to post it myself.

    14 June 2010 at 5:46 am

    • Gender, sex, language, and artifacts have interesting and intriguing interplay. Any of the work that is out there regarding masculinity and femininity in engineering education actually relates to issues of sex role threat (ie women being seen as unfeminine). Gender, like a lot of things, has micro-, meso- and macro-dimensions as people navigate their own lives in contact with other human beings arranged in social systems. I’m not trying to excuse ignorance or naive statements, but we all start learning about complicated phenomena through asking and attempting to answer various questions. Personally, the challenge of framing problems holistically and working towards concurrent solutions requires more holistic thinking. Currently, sustainability discourse works on three pillars (economic, environmental and social) although some effort is being made to add political and cultural pillars as well. (Adding political and cultural as separate dimensions makes me wonder about what is covered by the social pillar.) But, if we accept that human beings use gender to organize complicated and interconnected social systems, then how do people accomplish this organization? What are some of the pitfalls and drawbacks of using gender to think more holistically? What methods of broadening the gendered discourse (that most people would say is something that is already happening implicitly) are helpful? [Additionally one could argue that making the discourses around issues of race and class more visible is just as hot button.]

      I honestly think we can do better than conceptualizing gender as issues of personality. We do not need to use demographic-based norms to talk about gender; we also have a lot of linguistic considerations embedded in various gerunds. With re: to the MBTI dimension, I think you are speaking to the person-thing dimension. I’ve actually seen a lot of work exploring that frame of reference, but I would contend that we still are asking the questions about people rather than about engineering. Although it would be intriguing to consider the “personality” of engineering. Such a concept might compliment the current work exploring engineering cultures.

      Re: the advert: It was so awful in about every sense of the word. Here I was innocently searching on YouTube for something interesting to post about home appliances and I found that “gem.”

      14 June 2010 at 7:10 am

  3. Rhea

    “Asking “Why” requires some framework to structure the question. Demographics tend not to be so helpful.”

    Why do you believe that demographics are not helpful in this situation? Perhaps it’s just because of my sociology and psychology background, but I would find demographic information very helpful in trying to figure out the ‘why’ in terms of why more men than than women are engineers or go into an engineering field (or even a field that is engineering-esque).

    I mean, without demographics, you’ll never know that there ARE less women in the engineering field than men.

    14 June 2010 at 8:44 am

    • Demographics can point us towards interesting places to look, but they are incapable of telling the whole story. Spending time collecting demographics actually does not have explanatory power. We can count lots of things but it doesn’t ask the question of why. For instance, women who are engineers tend to be remarkably present in industrial engineering (gender parity) and chemical engineering (35% the last time I checked the numbers) while being remarkably absent from mechanical engineering (10%). People with a gendered perception of technologies might float a hypothesis that industrial and chemical engineering tend to be more focused on ideas of process, a more feminine dimension of technology (as opposed to the idea of product).

      14 June 2010 at 8:54 am

  4. Ross Douthat at New York Times is less than sanguine about lithium riches of Afghanistan, too.

    14 June 2010 at 6:41 pm

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