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?