Friday, February 15, 2008

The Way Toward More Women Engineers (NOT!)

Via Ace of Spades, I read this article hyping an idea which has so many things wrong with it I can't even fathom how someone besides a woolly-headed academic would even consider it.

The big idea for graduating more women engineers *drumroll*:

[The curriculum] emphasizes context, ethics, and communication as much as formulas and equations.

See full post for some very all-over-the-place thoughts on why some women have trouble in engineering.

Now, all three factors listed in the big idea are important for engineering work don't get me wrong but, um, math is just a teeny bit more important I think. Math, physics and all that are kinda primary skills. If you don't have those, (male or female) engineering is not the place for you. "Context, ethics and communication" are what I call secondary skills. They make life easier sure but they aren't strictly necessary. Not to mention the examples of "innovative" activities described in the Chronicle article don't sound particularly challenging or rigorous as far as design projects go.

These two commenter's pretty much sum up my feelings here:
Note to educators: It’s not supposed to be easy, it’s supposed to be effective! If people drop out, GOOD. I don’t want the lazy thinkers working for me!

No, I wouldn’t ride in a jet or rocket or ride a bike designed by someone who had a curriculum made easier for them because their feelings got hurt.

This is idea of feelings being hurt is especially dangerous because the design process is one, long, painful experience. You design something, take it in front of a group of people and they trash it. If you work for a good company, they may even do it politely. They do it because that's how you catch things, because that's how things get better. But, at the end of the day, you will invest a great deal of time, effort and emotion into things regularly criticized, taken apart and changed sometimes against your wishes. You should not be working as an engineer if you can't deal with being disappointed, occasionally outclassed by those around you and even totally ignored by those who overrule you. THIS IS THE DESIGN PROCESS PERIOD. Male or female, you need to get over it or find a new career.

Engineers are somewhat masochistic folks. We like challenges, especially if we don't know if we can do something to start. As terrible as the design process can be, you put up with it because it gets results. Because by the time you complete each project, you're going to be a better engineer. And that only happens if you push yourself, if you place yourself in a work environment that pushes you. I'm not always comfortable at my job. And that's a very good thing.

Also, there is a fundamental flaw with studying engineering at an all women's college. Where they will have minimal interaction with men as teammates. Without this experience, these women will go out into the world and work in a mainly male environment with male co-workers. And, unless they have five brothers, they will be wholly unprepared for that situation.

Based on my college experience, some women who don't complete engineering degrees are turned off not because of any harassment but because they're terrible at dealing with men as men. Too many women expect men to stop acting like men around them. I'm not talking about a "Boys Only" clubs or using "boys will be boys" excuses for poor behavior. Rather, I am referring to understanding that how men look at the world is different from how women look at the world. To be able to navigate that difference without giving or taking undue offense.

In my experience, most women have no trouble either expressing a female point-of-view or feeling secure in it. The problem I usually saw is that some women had real trouble acknowledging the male point-of-view or even feeling intimidated when confronted with it. (Note: I'm not referring to intimidated=scared, more like intimidated=you're-disagreeing-with-me-and-it-hurts-STOP!).

My Mechanical Engineering college was about one-quarter female. We weren't the majority but at least it wasn't, well, the Electrical Engineering school (< 1/6f). I saw women of many different personality types, ethic backgrounds, intelligence levels and socioeconomic tiers succeed in working with their male peers and with the engineering coursework. And the women who didn't last? Well, it wasn't the math that put them off. It was the criticism, the constant questioning and the fact that most engineering guys will be impressed with the fact you're a girl for about 5 minutes and then, they want to know what you can actually do.

Male or female most drop-outs in engineering are due to the following:
1) The fact that most engineering schools have a high dropout rate due to leaving kids hanging in two years of "cull the herd" classes (somewhat intentional: If you can't cut it, they don't want you designing bridges or cars....I don't blame "them")

2) The design review process which gets emphasized more & more as you move up toward advanced classes. At any time, you will be expected to justify and explain your decisions to a skeptical audience. This is hard but it isn't unfair; you get to do it for all of them too.

3) The fact that there is no arguing with math proofs, with common sense or with a basic understanding of physics. While women can have trouble with this too, I can think of at least three guys who switched out of engineering because they got sick of being told they were wrong and didn't want to learn what it took to be right.

I don't think the problem is with graduating female engineers. It's with enrolling them, getting young women to the point they are confident enough in their genders AND intellects to embrace this somewhat frustrating career where you are always exposed to questioning and criticism. The problem is teenage males are preternaturally confident in themselves in that they are risk-takers, less afraid of criticism. Teenage females? Not so much. The average high school girl-group (sometimes even among nerds) is a lesson in how to establish a merciless heirarchical system based on lethally wielded criticisms of those around you. Why would young women pursue a career that purposely exposes them to more of that?

Honestly, I'd greatly prefer if they quit with these special programs (which really they're like the academic version of "magic bullets"). I don't want a lot of women engineers. I'd rather have a few good, hell even great, women engineers. No double-standards or special accommodations*. This is not to say there shouldn't be mentoring and such. Just focus on the math! Focus on the design process and the self-confidence required to navigate it. I think that approach would be loads more effective. Of course, it's also a lot more work so I doubt it will happen.

*Except a women's bathroom. I like the guys I work with but I don't want to share a bathroom with any of them.

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