Anger & Engineering Outreach

Feb 24 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

This week is National Engineer's Week in the US. Universities across the country are engaging in activities, competitions, build challenges, and outreach activities. GeekDad over at Wired has a great list of engineering links so you can celebrate the week with the young people in your life. I love the outreach aspects of this because I think engineering, but science in general, is often done behind the curtains from the public. And while I wouldn't advocate every single kid grow up to be an engineer they shouldn't be afraid to be an engineer and those who are not should still have some idea of what the profession is.

Today's day in E-Week is Introduce a Girl to Engineering. It's not been too long since we've had our first engineer barbie so we're at that point where it's easy to feel like we're succeeding. Like Luke in fending off TIE fighters we have to be reminded, great kid, now don't get cocky! Over at Engineer Blogs my colleague Fluxor wrote a great post about women in engineering.  And this is where you see the total disconnect of those that get it and those that don't. The comments there were generally supportive but the comments on the article over at reddit are enough to make me sick. Bitter enough I ranted angrily on my own blog. The comments were of the flavor that women engineers are basically taking jobs away from qualified (white?) dudes (they took 'r jooobs!) and doing some piss poor justifications that women aren't as good as men.

But the post on my own blog shows that what they won't say to your face will still come all wrong. And it's frustrating to have to deal with that crap every day. I know so many women in academia, industry, science, engineering, technology- who all have to deal with that daily battle. And even at my youngish age, you just get tired. And thankfully I can come here and write about it and laugh about it and feel like I'm not alone and that not all men are total douchebags (just the ones I work with apparently). But I've also seen my industry serve as a training ground to indoctrinate once decent fellows into the ways of the sexist and racist dinosaurs that run the place. So I'm not convinced a sudden infusion of women or minorities is going to change anything.

Which brings me back to introducing a girl to engineering. Sometimes I feel like the young women I know and care about, there is no way I would want to convince them to go into this field. I would have a hard time being genuine in encouraging them. Or a hard time glossing over all of the tough parts. I mean, don't get me wrong. Most professions have their pitfalls and require a lot of hard work and dedication, at least at some point, that might or might not pay off later. But when a woman has to work 2.5 times as hard as a man to be considered equally capable it's difficult for me to sell the parts of the field that I love. This article from womens enews provides a great rebuttal of a lot of the articles lately that have chimed in with some false research conclusions about how it's all okay now and women having supposedly achieved parity.

But past all the difficulties and drudgeries and long, angry days, I do love engineering. It's going to be less than two hours now until the final Space Shuttle launch at NASA. I hope on this day that girls, and boys, and all of us supposed adults have a chance to watch this memorable day. It's hard for me to think that the space shuttle era is an era at all. That it has to end. That I won't be able to stream live launches anymore of the shuttle that means so much to me. I'm not sure why it's emotional to me, but maybe because the shuttle was to my youth what the Apollo program was to the generation before me. I'd go buy this shirt but I think wearing it will only make me sad.

When you hear the astronauts speak, many of whom are training on future missions that will be using the Russian's Soyuz rocket to get people to the space station, they don't sound sad at all. They know that closing of certain programs is just something that happens in technology and another era will eventually take its place. They know whatever the future of space flight is that there will be a future and that whatever that future is it's worth believing in and worth taking risks for.

And maybe that's how I should look at engineering. It hasn't been easy and sometimes it tries to break my heart but sometimes it gives me gifts and fulfillment I never would have suspected. I know that for me at least the risk is worth it that had I to do it all over again I would do everything exactly the same.

So how about you dear readers, do you ever have trouble trying to encourage young people into your discipline? Do you wonder whether the pitfalls of your particular field were worth it, or maybe worth it only for you? Do you think it'll be better some day, that telling our daughters to go into STEM isn't sending them into an ultimately frustrating place? Do you worry the general attitudes towards STEM fields in general will discourage people or do you think the future will be brighter? Are you as heart broken as I am about the final shuttle launch?

5 responses so far

  • GEARS says:

    I think the allure of making money on Wall Street and the derivatives market is going to sap most of societies best brains for the foreseeable future. It's that simple. The best and the brightest will gravitate towards that because engineering isn't sexy. There are plenty of those people getting engineering degrees but they're also getting minors in Econ or Finance and then go work for some bank generating millions/billions on paper and millions in bonuses for themselves. I've certainly thought about it myself.

    Hopefully I'll be able to encourage NanoGEARS into a STEM field, but I suspect the frustration of working in a STEM field will become more discouraging before it becomes encouraging (if ever).

    Yes, I'm deeply saddened about this being the final shuttle launch.

  • Zuska says:

    Yes, I have felt this way off and on for the past thousand years, ever since my first days as an engineering undergraduate student. How could I be comfortable encouraging young women to go into a field that is so sexist and so unwelcoming?

    But what should I rather encourage them to do? Deny their love of technology and engineering? Not explore options for interesting and relatively well-paid careers? Seek jobs that are clearly stamped "For teh Wimminz!" so they don't have to worry about their colleagues harassing them & discriminating against them for doing something that belongs to men, but only being harassed/discriminated against by their bosses simply for being women, and being harassed in society at large by any douchenozzle on the street or in a bar for being a woman? Young girls will grow up to be women, and they will not be able to escape the disadvantages of being women no matter what field of employment they go into. Their lives will not be completely safe from sexist jerks just by not becoming engineers.

    Lots and lots of women go into medicine and law and business, and it's not like those fields are gender utopias, just because they are relatively more open to women than engineering is. No one says, oh, should I really encourage young girls to be lawyers, because it's so hard to make partner, and so many old boys are such douchenozzles, and they socialize the young ones into being jerks. But they are, and they do, and we encourage young girls to become lawyers. Engineering is extremely resistant to all but the white d00ds, but we shouldn't give up. Because engineering belongs to everyone.

  • Are you as heart broken as I am about the final shuttle launch?

    Yes.

    Do you think it’ll be better some day, that telling our daughters to go into STEM isn’t sending them into an ultimately frustrating place?

    Yes. With caveats about not being complacent, things have improved, things are improving, I believe things will continue to improve.

    Do you wonder whether the pitfalls of your particular field were worth it, or maybe worth it only for you?

    Honestly, since I left high school, I can't think of a time that I have knowingly hit a career setback due to not having a Y chromosome. Of course, I'm in biology, and women got an early pass on that one because it's all nature-y and stuff.

    But srsly, I will blog it if it ever comes up.

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    I feel much that way when talking to prospective students about graduate school. Lucky me, by that time they usually already have their mind made up and I'm just giving them info on the realities.

    Maybe I'm lucky that I have a thick skin and don't care as much when my peers are sexist (and trust me, the nationality I predominately work with has a very rigid social structure with men>women). It's not easy, but it's not the science either. It's the interpersonal relations, and those are shitty working retail too - I'd much rather be doing this if I'm going to have to deal with misogyny anyways.

    Oh, and in typical "female dominated careers" men are promoted faster than women. So there's really no safe career for us (besides housewife perhaps?) and I take that to mean there's no reason not to follow your dreams, because bullshit will be there either way. Thankfully, I think loving what you do makes the rest a little easier to get through.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    So how about you dear readers, do you ever have trouble trying to encourage young people into your discipline?

    "Encourage" as in in persuade, or "encourage" as in "do what you want to do even in the face of adversity?"

    I'm not big on persuasion, but I honestly thought and hoped my daughter would follow the family tradition. Told her so, too. Wasn't to be: she loves math, has a brilliant grasp of the physical relationships in the world around her, unlimited curiosity, and grew up seeing how much I enjoy my work. All of which motivated her to find out why she's just not interested in engineering or physics.

    Now she's ABD in social psychology of gender.

    And, yes, I'm an insufferably proud father.