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.
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!!