Where Are The Women?

I’ve wanted to write this post for some time, but I’ve been putting it off. It wasn’t until I read Alicia’s post Where are the Women in Science? over at Financial Diffraction, that I finally got my butt in gear to write it. The topic of women working in the sciences and other male dominated fields tends to get me fired up. If you don’t believe me, you can check out my rebuttal to a rage invoking post on whether or not women should work in male dominated professions.

People have been asking for years, why aren’t there more women in the science and technology fields?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the science that’s stopping them.

I was fortunate to have grown up largely insulated from sexist behavior in my immediate family. Despite being quite traditional and conservative, my father supported me in my educational endeavors, even as I pursued work in a heavily male dominated field. There was never any suggestion at home that I was anything less than capable.

If any of you reading this are fathers with daughters, be very aware that your daughters look up to you, and are paying attention to you. Your actions will influence them far more than you realize. I may get some flack for this, but this is my honest belief: while the behaviors of both parents play a role, when entering a male dominated field a father’s support for his daughter in her line of work is a key factor in whether or not she will be successful.

Why?

Because she is going to run into people who don’t believe she belongs there. Lots of people. Some will be vocal about it. Others will display it through their actions. Some will treat her like a novelty. She will run into walls that are there for no other reason than the fact that she’s female. When the going gets tough, both she and her male colleagues will question their decisions to enter their chosen field. The difference between them is that she will have a chorus of people whose words and actions will reinforce her doubt. Sometimes having a father (or mentor, or male friend of the family) standing behind her, supporting her, never wavering and never questioning her decision, is the only thing there to remind her that not all men think she is incapable of doing the job. Fathers, support your daughters.

We have come a long way in the last few generations. A long way, but not far enough. The unfortunate reality is that even though we think of ourselves as an evolved, civilized society, most people are still grappling with the basic idea that women are intelligent beings with the same mental capacity and abilities as men. It’s still widely accepted by many that men are better at math and science than women are, and that women don’t have an interest in those subjects.

I call bullshit.

There is a huge social element at play when children develop their interests. The interests start with the child, but the fostering of said interest happens by the people they interact with. If they’re playing with trucks in the dirt and an adult scolds them for getting their clothes dirty and asks them “Wouldn’t you rather go play with the other girls?”, that teaches them something. If they show off the molecule model they built out of their brother’s chemistry set and at Christmas they receive a DIY jewellery kit, that teaches them something. When they mention they like math and someone reacts by saying “Math is hard”, that teaches them something!

By the time they reach high school, a lot of girls have been socialized to have interests outside of math and science. I was fortunate that I didn’t hit much of this social backlash until I hit university. That being said, once I did hit university, and subsequently my career, the social side of things hit me like a tonne of bricks.

“You don’t belong here.”

I heard variations of that more than once in my first year of Engineering. One of those times was when I was at an APEGA meeting. APEGA is the governing body for Engineers and Geoscientists in Alberta. The fellow who told me women didn’t belong in Engineering was an Engineer seated across the table from me. He slightly back peddled upon realizing that the woman seated to my right was the current APEGA president, but still maintained that women didn’t belong in all fields of Engineering.

I had a professor state that he wouldn’t work with women in a field setting, because he didn’t want to be accused of inappropriate behaviour. He was an expert in his field, and many people wanted a chance to work with him, but this automatically limited his field work colleagues to men.

Unbeknownst to me, I had a supervisor throw a conniption the day before I showed up on his site when he found out I was female. The entire time I worked with him, I couldn’t figure out why he would barely give me the time of day. I didn’t find out he had an issue with the fact that I was female until after I had left the site. He undermined me the entire time I worked with him.

When my mom tells people what I do for a living she’s often met with the response “Oh, that’s *hesitant pause* nice…”

I had one supervisor dedicate me as the go to person for communicating with someone outside of our department because “He responds better to breasts”.

I went to a networking event for one of my jobs. The guys who were more than happy to talk to me about work on site wouldn’t even acknowledge me when they were standing beside their wives and girlfriends.

I’m not the only woman to have experienced this kind of behaviour or social pressure, not by a long shot.

I know one woman who works on a large construction site. She is a Professional Engineer, and she shares an office with two male Engineers in Training. She had foremen frequently coming into the office looking for the guys. When neither of them were present, they’d say “No Engineers here”, and leave. Legally speaking, she was the only Engineer there. This went on for months. She spoke to one of the higher ups about it, and it eventually stopped, but it wore on her to the point that she seriously considered a career change.

I know a young woman whose parents set tuition money aside for their three kids to go to school. One brother went to a technical school, and one brother went to university. After high school, she expressed interest in the heavy duty mechanic program at the technical school – a job that is highly in demand and very lucrative in our area. Her father refused to pay for it, and wants her to take something else. She’s been working retail for a year and a half, and still hasn’t applied for any post secondary programs.

These examples are all less than 10 years old. How many of them sound like women aren’t interested in math, science or other technical fields? How many of these examples sound like the women are either being encouraged to pursue other fields, are being edged out, or are being put into uncomfortable situations that have nothing to do with their interest in the field or ability to do the job? Women are interested in the work. Period. The question is whether or not we can ignore the noise while we study, or put up with the crap once we’re there. I’ve had a few people comment that the retention of women in Engineering is low. This is a few of the many reasons why.

This isn’t an issue that’s exclusive to women. The same can be said of the men who go against the grain and try to enter female dominated fields. There was an article posted recently about Canada’s only male midwife. There was another male midwife who retired recently, but as it stands there is only one employed male midwife in Canada. He gets flack for it. Sometimes the pregnant mother is uncomfortable with him being male, and sometimes the father doesn’t want him in the delivery room. How many people would refuse a male doctor at the hospital? I’m guessing fewer than the number of people who would refuse a male midwife. It’s not fair, but it’s what happens when you’re a trail blazer in a field dominated by the opposite sex. His interest in midwifery was nurtured, while most boys would see their interest in the subject unceremoniously squashed because it’s not masculine enough.

When people ask me at my current job why I do what I do, I tell them I enjoy my work. If they press further, I give them the glib, smart ass response that I get to play with more sparkly things (shattered steel fragments) on a daily basis than most people do in a jewelry store. Generally people catch the sarcasm, laugh, and leave the subject alone. I do enjoy my work. Despite being the only female in the department, my gender isn’t an issue. If one of the guys has a problem, they’ll ask me for help. If I have a problem, I’ll ask them for help. It’s the kind of normal, healthy work environment that a lot of women in the STEM fields wish they had. With any luck, one day more of women will find it.

Including the ones currently in diapers.

Recommended Reading: Self-Storage Hell: Finally Free!!

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27 thoughts on “Where Are The Women?

  1. As someone who is in a STEM field mainly dominated by men, this is exactly the reason why I said if I had a girl or a boy, they’d be treated the same way in terms of interests.

    I’d encourage them BOTH into a STEM profession if they showed an aptitude for it.

    What an excellent post. Definitely going to link to this.

  2. Awesome post Cassie! I know exactly how this feels as a young female scientist that recently moved from one male-dominated field to another (I play with sparkly rocks now). I’ve actually recently become involved in a Women in Science annual event, but honestly I think it’s targeted at the wrong age group (14-19) – by then, it’s generally too late.

    Glad to see you write this post – I have more future posts on this topic.

    • Thanks Alicia. I think you’re right about the science for girls events being targeted at the wrong age group. I used to do WISEST events while I was in University. The problem with them, as I’m sure you’ve found, is that the girls who are there are the ones who still have an interest in the sciences. It doesn’t help the girls who had an interest, but are being encouraged to pursue other fields.

      I look forward to reading more on the subject :)

  3. This makes me feel very fortunate that I grew up in a feminist household.

    My father and mother alike have always advocated for equality. My father never made me feel like I couldn’t go fishing with him or roughhouse with him because I was a girl, and he supported me in whatever I did. My mom did too, but I think it’s so valuable to have both parents on board. When we were in our pre-teens, we would work for my dad hauling lumber at his mill when we wanted to buy something, and never once did he give me a job filing papers or sweeping up the sawdust, like I saw some of his business partners do to their daughters. He didn’t understand that behaviour and still doesn’t.

    As a result of the equality that I saw in my own household, I was really wierded out when I entered high school and college and started seeing the divide. I am in business, which isn’t a particularly male dominated field (only at the top), but the particular branch of business I work in is very female dominated (80% of professionals in my speciality are female). I wish I had gone into a different field because I sort of feel like I’m feeding into the stereotypes.

    • “When we were in our pre-teens, we would work for my dad hauling lumber at his mill when we wanted to buy something, and never once did he give me a job filing papers or sweeping up the sawdust, like I saw some of his business partners do to their daughters. He didn’t understand that behaviour and still doesn’t.”

      This is exactly what I’m talking about! There’s nothing saying we can’t haul lumber or shovel dirt or any other task that is considered unfeminine.

      If you are interested in and enjoy your work, don’t change it! I know what you mean about not wanting to feed stereotypes, I have those moments too. We don’t want to force women into roles for the sake of breaking stereotypes, we just want to remove the barriers so that everyone can pursue their interests without encountering socially enforced gender barriers.

  4. Ridiculous. Just ridiculous.

    My dad is an old school Chinese sexist. I still boil about the time he told me soccer wasn’t a sport for girls. (I was awful at it, but that’s not the point.)

    I wish I had an aptitude for maths and science but alas I’m a word nerd through and through – super stereotypical (though perhaps not for an Asian female) and poorly paid.

    • Soccer isn’t a sport for girls? Really? I’m kind of flabbergasted by that one. I don’t even know where to start. What would be considered a girl’s sport?

  5. Oh my Cassie, this could NOT have come at a better time for me. My boss did my review yesterday (day 1 we wrote the goals, the very next day, we did the 6 month review… cause he’s been off more than on in the 5 months I’ve worked in his section). Whilst I achieve great results, which is why I was moved to his group, the end of the session had him tell me that I’m intimidating. That wasn’t what it started with, first off it sounded more like ‘you don’t like how you should’, which I read as ‘you don’t act how I think a girl should’. I’m not reading bias in here, this is a guy who is about to retire and his wife doesn’t work. Anyhow, in a lot of ways, I take him finding me intimidating as a compliment. If I see the mirror of intimidating as placid, or a walk over or any number of other docile traits, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be getting the results I’ve been getting.

    Interestingly, no one says I’m not welcome as an engineer. And I’m actually surprised at how infrequently I seem to feel resistance. Although, I have recently had a customer really battle with me about a power outage – he’s at a school, and for Pete’s sake, I gave you a three month window to tell me the best date, don’t try to weasel out of that large amount of room I gave you!!! Alas, I thought it might be gender based, but he seems to be doing the same to another manager I referred him to (as, of course, he wanted to speak to my manager!) Overall, I find I get respect. I attribute it to these men having daughters and wives and not treating me in a way they’d treat them. There are some tools of people, but they are gender indiscriminate with their tool-ness.

    Sorry this is getting long, but I am passionate here! I think women in non traditional roles feel they still have a lot to prove. To be able to do the job is sometimes not enough, you have to do well. Cause if you’re average, you then leave yourself open to valid criticism of your skills. It’s a killer! There’s three women in my section (and since I moved, none in my old section), and we all bust our guts and get the hard work done, the work that was delayed and overlooked prior to us taking on the portfolios. A man I respect said to me, you girls, you get stuff done, truly, that is a compliment to me, and I’m honoured to know the three of us are at least held in high esteem!

    • That’s kind of funny to be honest. I’ve been told I’m intimidating as well, but I was told that while I was working in construction (by the construction guys). The part that was making me intimidating? The fact that I didn’t automatically say what I was thinking. There were a couple guys on the site that like to manipulate and play people off each other, and I knew that, so I put up a neutral front so they couldn’t read me. It worked.

      I’m glad to hear that you don’t get resistance as an Engineer. I’ve encountered fairly minimal resistance at my current job, which has been incredibly pleasant.

  6. Fantastic post. I work with a college student who is always saying “I’m sorry” it drives me crazy because she is preparing to go into a STEM field and I don’t want her minimize her intelligence, power, and position in her future work organization. It drives me crazy!!! Because I know how challenging it’s going to be for her. P.S. a huge “Thank you” for sharing my post :)

    • She will want to get over the auto apologies sooner rather than later. Apologizing for legitimate slights is one thing, but if she may find herself being taken advantage of if she apologizes for things that aren’t her fault. Politics suck.

  7. Good post! My colleagues are about 75% male but my boss is a woman. It doesn’t bother me if they think I don’t belong because the numbers speak for themselves in my line of work.

    I was a tomboy growing up. I was given toy trucks at Christmas instead of Barbies.

    • Keep up the great numbers at work :)

      I did have Barbies when I was younger, but never any other sort of doll. My sister was the major tomboy in our family.

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  9. I think this is a lot more complicated than maybe you present it. Yes there are “male” and “female” dominated jobs, and anyone going in as the minority may have some increased pressure – maybe – depending on the culture of the workplace and the individuals working there. However, I truly and honestly believe there are also individual differences between men and women which are nature not nurture. I am a dad, and my first child is a daughter. When she was about 2 and a half, I bought her a set of trucks/cars for Christmas, as I didn’t want her to get all “girly” presents. She opened them up, asked me if I wanted to play, and immediately she made the biggest truck the dad, the next biggest the mom, the smaller ones the kids and in 10 seconds she had changed the game from “trucks” to “the truck family”. She is now 12 and does really well in school, plays lots of sports including hockey, and does well in math and science – but complains to me all the time that she hates the math and science despite my protests that she’s really smart in these subjects. My son, who is 10, doesn’t do nearly as well in school in general, but says his favorite subjects are math and science. I guarantee you they have not been raised in a home where girls and boys are treated differently – my wife and her sister are both highly educated professional women in health care. I am also in healthcare, and for most of my working career I have been in the minority and more of my supervisors have been female than male.

    So, in 2013/14, are there still some girls who feel some pressure not to go into maths and/or sciences – probably, but I think the number would be small. Show me some actual research and data about this and I’ll reconsider, but I think girls in Canada have great opportunities to go into whatever field they want. If you choose any profession where you are the minority, you may be swimming against the tide to some extent, but I don’t think this would prevent anybody from pursuing something they really cared about. Just about any job I’ve ever had has included some “initiation” by the people there. New guy gets the crappiest job. New guy gets some jokes played on him. Guess what – you either quit and leave or you suck it up, play along for a week or three, and once you get to prove that your work is good, pretty soon you’re just another part of the team getting the job done. All fields have some jerks, and everybody just learns how to deal with them, guys or girls. Anyhow, to backtrack to my first sentence, I don’t think this is about opportunity or socialization – I think this is much more complicated and these issues are but one small factor.

    • Hi Chris, I know this comment wasn’t directed at me, but I thought I would share a great link of statistics regarding women in science and engineering (WISE).

      It states (page 3) that the odds of a female 1st grader earning a PhD is 1 in 286, compared to a male 1st grader at 1 in 167. Granted, not every student entering STEM strive for a PhD, but it does show a higher likelihood for a male student to go farther. Also, it might be the metric used in that example because of the source of the information (NSERC). It is also interesting to note that females students outnumber male students in university bachelor degrees at a rate of roughly 3:2 (in all programs), yet only 15% choose the Natural Sciences and Engineering, compared to 35% of male undergrads.

      http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/_doc/Reports-Rapports/Women_Science_Engineering_e.pdf

      If you have a chance, it is a fascinating read, filled with various stats regarding WISE. Slightly dated (compiled in 2010, so using data from the beginning to middle of the decade (roughly 6 years ago), but still very current, considering.

      I think it is nice to be hopeful, and feel we are a more balanced society here in Canada, but honestly, there are still obstacles hindering women in science, whether that be self-perception, nurturing, or other having to swim against the tide, as you say.

      • Hi Alicia – sorry I didn’t read the links yet. Based on the rest of your comment tho, what you are providing are statistics of what occurs. I don’t disagree, I think the numbers are accurate, just as I think all you ladies in Engineering are probably highly outnumbered. My question is more to do with why that is, and I don’t think it’s (just) because girls are lead to be non-scientists. I just think the issue is way more complicated and we don’t know. What I do know is that the opportunities are there, and why girls make the choices they do, I’m not sure. (As my wife and daughter would agree, I rarely know why women make any of the choices they do.) I don’t think the rant that girls don’t go into the sciences because of the environment they are in is justified most of the time. Girls tend to be better at reading, writing and “communication, (we are told) yet there are many great male authors, speech writers and orators. Boys tend to be better and math and science (we are told) but there are plenty of brilliant female mathematicians and scientists. So obviously each individual is different, and we all have the opportunity to be what we want. Why we make those choices, I think is a much more difficult concept. My sister in law was accepted into a joint MD/PhD program after her undergrad, but after a year or so decided she hated the idea of doing research. Brillliant girl, certainly could have done what she wanted. She decided to stick with MD and specialized in Oby/Gyn – the most “female” specialty. Why? I have no idea, but I don’t think for a second she didn’t get support. So yes, there are obstacles, but I think the reasons for those stats are deeper than lack of societal support. I don’t think I have the answer, I just don’t agree with that idea as the answer either. Take care.

    • The reason why more women don’t go into the sciences is absolutely more complicated than what I could lay out in a single post, however that should in no way take away from the points that I’ve made. I’m familiar with the concept of new guy initiation; however after over a decade in the field I think we should both be able to agree that the initiation period should have been over long ago. I am not a single person who can’t handle working with men whining about being picked on; if you look at the other comments you will notice some very strong, intelligent women commenting that they’ve encountered and experienced the exact same things that I’ve mentioned. I have a great work environment now, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t encounter years of major social obstacles before getting here. You mention in your response to Alicia that women are typically better at “communication”. That may be true, as it may also be true that women tend to be very socially minded, which is why we notice social barriers that the men around us don’t see. It is something that affects us quite strongly, and frankly I feel that by minimizing it and chalking it up to “initiation” takes an opportunity for positive change and throws it out the window.

      Your daughter is fortunate to be in a family that has strong female role models, and that you support her in her endeavours. I’m also thrilled to hear that she plays hockey. My 2 year old niece got her first hockey helmet for Christmas this year, and I’m looking forward to watching her games in the coming years. I wish you and your family all the best in 2014.

  10. You nailed it on the head. I’m a femail building inspector, and I’ve faced just about everything you’ve listed.
    P.S. My goddaughter wanted to be spiderman for Halloween. I was informed that she did not want to be the pink one, she wanted to be the red and blue one with muscles. I bought her the costume because I figured she should be encouraged to do and be what she wants!

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