The woman engineer: are we really that incompetent?

What is really holding back women in engineering, and stopping girls from aspiring to careers in applied sciences? Wisrutta Atthakor investigates

, 20 July 2009

Women are rubbish at driving, women are rubbish at sports, women are rubbish at martial arts, women are rubbish at politics, women are rubbish at science, engineering and technology, manual labour, electronics, computers, at being chefs (despite being expected to cook for the family), at competition, at debates (despite apparently being so argumentative), at giving speeches (despite apparently never being able to stop talking)… the list goes on (nearly) ad infinitum. Or should I say women are worse than men at all of these things?

How can half of the population of the world be naturally, innately worse than the other half at practically everything? The answer is: we are not! Women are not worse than men at practically everything. The truth of the matter is that for each skill or activity, some women are worse than some men, some men are worse than some women, some women are worse than some women and some men are worse than some men. It’s pretty logical, really. Yet, people seem to get it drummed into their heads from a very young age that some things are ‘a man’s job’. I can’t go into everything I’ve listed above in one article, so let me concentrate on something I know a little about: science, engineering and technology (SET).

Since I was a little girl, I have always liked tinkering. I would watch my dad and help him mess about with his car engine. I was over the moon when my sister and I were given a remote-control car, but was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t a more powerful one, like the ones the boys at school had. I had a little carpenter’s workshop toy, which consisted of a little wooden workbench and colourful plastic screwdrivers, a hammer, and nuts and bolts. I always wanted to be an engineer – except for when I wanted to be an astronaut or a surgeon. Of course, when I was a little girl, I didn’t know that there existed such a concept that women were meant to be the teachers and men were meant to be the engineers.

I think women are just as capable as men are. I do think, however, that a lot of women start from a disadvantaged position

As I started growing up, I was getting more and more messages that insinuated that I liked boys’ toys and wanted to do boyish things. This was very confusing for a girl growing up wanting to build remote-control cars and wondering what was inside a television, a fridge, a computer. OK, I knew what was inside my fridge and it usually included too many vegetables for my liking. But I wanted to know how the thing worked! What made it cold? I wanted to know how the pictures appeared on TV, where they came from, how they were being transmitted (although, admittedly, at the time I’d probably never heard of the word transmission). And then I was told that that’s the kind of thing that boys want to know and are interested in. Girls don’t ask about car engines or spaceships. Girls are interested in… geez, I don’t know, Barbies? Tea and cakes? Don’t get me wrong. I had my Barbie dolls and my teddy bears. And I love tea and cakes. But why shouldn’t it have been normal for me to want to have LEGO and remote-control cars as well? Why should I have to want a Barbie sports car but have to not want a remote-control car? A Barbie house and swimming pool, but not a LEGO fire station or space station?

Thankfully, I have always been encouraged to do well in school, especially in math and sciences, and so my road to becoming an engineer was being fabricated, despite the mixed messages. And a lot of these messages seemed to revolve around the notion that women can never be as good as men in the sciences, but especially in the applied sciences like the engineering fields and technology. Pretty demoralising for any girl growing up wanting to be an engineer and wanting to excel in the field, wouldn’t you say?

So I’ve asked myself: why? Why can’t women ever be as good as men in SET? There are always statistics being published about girls doing well in school subjects, including the maths and sciences. So… what, as we grow up we become more stupid and less able to apply our brains? Some people say it’s the ‘application’ of maths and sciences that we’re rubbish at. Or that we haven’t got a clue when it comes to spatial awareness. Goddamn! If I didn’t have a clue about spatial awareness, I’d keep walking into doors! I wouldn’t be able to pick up a pen, let alone write this article. People tell me that women have trouble with spatial-temporal reasoning, which is an important ability required in the conceptualisation of solutions to multi-step problems that are prevalent in SET, and is linked to having an advanced state of spatial awareness. So apparently, what people are telling me is that women are just generally more stupid than men are. Hmmm…

Men themselves weren’t born knowing how to do these things. They messed about, tried things, and most importantly were encouraged to

So, have women really got worse spatial awareness than men and therefore can’t make as good engineers? Are women weak and lack the manual dexterity that men have to make good engineers? No. I honestly don’t think so. I don’t think women are inferior to men when it comes to applied sciences. I think women are just as capable as men are. I do think, however, that a lot of women start from a disadvantaged position. While I am not an expert in neuro- or cognitive science, and I have limited knowledge on brain development and function in women and men to be able to say with authority that women’s spatial awareness is no worse than men’s, I do believe that nurture has a great deal to do with any possible inferiority with regards to practical skills and abilities. I believe that early encouragement can play an important part in building up these skills, as well as the confidence to execute them.

In general, girls don’t get encouraged as much as boys do, if at all, to develop from a young age the skills needed to be able to apply the sciences, and any disadvantage that manifests in their engineering futures is a result of this. If boys are encouraged from a young age to build things like tree houses and girls aren’t, then it seems to me that they are getting the experience and their brains trained to think and look at building blocks in a certain way.

Gender-targeted toys have a lot to answer for when it comes to these disadvantages. If building and construction toys, including LEGO, and science toys like chemistry sets and microscopes are packaged to include the words “for boys”, in a way that is implied that they’re for boys and girls “shouldn’t touch”, or to send out the “no girls allowed” signal, then the toy companies are deliberately excluding half of the child population: girls. And if girls are only encouraged to, and are expected to only, play with Barbie dolls, life-like baby dolls and kitchen sets, then what kind of messages are these kids being sent?

OK, fine. Have kitchen toys, but for both girls and boys! After all, all kids should be taught to look after themselves, and cook and clean for themselves when they grow up and leave home. Have toy vacuum cleaners: ditto. Have chemistry sets, microscopes, building blocks, LEGO, remote-control cars, fire stations, space stations, etc. But they should be targeted to boys and girls! Girls should be encouraged to climb trees and build tree houses also. Why shouldn’t they be? And playing with LEGO probably would train children’s brains to apply their spatial abilities to problem solving and other things. After all, engineering is an applied science.

As for manual dexterity, this too can be trained. I’ll admit that on average, men may have larger body structures and builds than women, but it doesn’t mean women can’t be trained to do the same things. You don’t need to be 6 ft and 20 stone to be able to operate a crane or a forklift, but this does require skill, and skill comes with training. You don’t have to be built like a brick shithouse to be able to open up a car bonnet and fix the engine. The thing is: men themselves weren’t born knowing how to do these things. They messed about, tried things, and most importantly were encouraged to.

In the past, it was unthinkable for women to even speak in public, but women before us have fought hard for it and it has paid off! Women in engineering are still struggling and fighting today

These preconceived ideas of women’s and men’s differing abilities is detrimental not only to women’s SET prospects but to society and the world’s growth and development. Because people tend to already think that men are better than women in certain (or most) things, it somehow becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people already think men make better engineers than women, then why should girls be encouraged to do things that they’ll just end up being rubbish at anyway, right? So that just perpetuates a vicious circle where girls’ potentials are left unfulfilled. And it seems to affect women not only physically and mentally, but psychologically too! As I was writing this article, this blog (link to: https://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2009/07/women_confidenc) by Laura Woodhouse appeared, and I thought: my god! It is so true. And it affects women everywhere and in countless situations. The study (link to: http://www.chessbase.com/newsdetail.asp?newsid=5567) it links to concerns women chess players. But I’m sure it applies, to a very large extent indeed, to SET as well, and ties in uncannily with these damaging preconceptions, alongside a myriad of other difficulties women engineers are faced with.

So perhaps engineering as a career choice for women should not be endorsed? Perhaps everyone’s time and money are just being wasted? Perhaps parents, schools and universities should just abandon girls and women as potential engineers? No! Most definitely not! That would be a most irresponsible thing to do: to ignore half of the potential workforce just because of some long-standing ill-conceived idea that women are rubbish at SET. Just because there is currently still so much in the way of gender-targeted toys for children, and more boys than girls are encouraged to play with things that could benefit them in practical engineering in later life, we as a society must not give up hope of girls’ potential engineering careers.

It is ever more important that parents and teachers encourage both girls and boys equally. Giving in to the perpetuating vicious circle is definitely not the way forward. In the past, it was unthinkable for women to even speak in public, but women before us have fought hard for it and it has paid off! Women in engineering are still struggling and fighting today and it is indeed difficult still, but I can tell you it is less difficult now than in 1919, when our foremothers formed the Women’s Engineering Society. It is less difficult now than in the 1920s and 1930s, when pioneers like Gertrude Entwisle and Margaret Partridge were faced with much more hostility and difficulties. Without women like them, and women like Mary Somerville and Ada Lovelace and her mother, there wouldn’t be women today like Lucy Rogers and Bijal Thakore.

If we give up now, then all the work they have done, and are still doing today, will have been for nothing. If we just give in to the preconceived ideas that women can never be as good as men in engineering, it would be as if women in the past had given up fighting for the right to speak in public or for the right to vote… and where would we be today? So it’s vitally important to promote and encourage women in SET and to make people recognise our skills and abilities and realise that the woman engineer is more than capable! What she needs is not for people to give up on her. She just needs the same encouragement and appreciation of her abilities and potential that her brothers are getting!

Wisrutta would like to pay tribute to all her science, engineering and technology mothers who have made it possible for girls and women like her to revel in the world of science and who have been an encouragement to her throughout her scientific life, especially during times of doubt and despair. They have laid many foundations and paved out roads and built vehicles for her to travel on those roads; she hopes to make the roads smoother and the vehicles more efficient for future engineering women to come

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