Women Aren't Interested in Engineering, They Just Aren't

"In the long run men hit only what they aim at." H.D. Thoreau, Walden

This post's title is the poorly reasoned conclusion to a poorly reported and poorly conducted study. I couldn't tell if it was simply bad reporting at The Boston Globe or bad research. Either way (or both ways) it suggests that evidence is meaningless without a context and that scientific research is meaningless without a fuller recognition of its cultural moorings. Put another way, given data, what are we to conclude?

In this case, "two new studies by economists and social scientists have reached a perhaps startling conclusion: An important part of the explanation for the gender gap, they are finding, are the preferences of women themselves. When it comes to certain math- and science-related jobs, substantial numbers of women -- highly qualified for the work -- stay out of those careers because they would simply rather do something else."

That makes no sense to me. It begs the question of what "preference" means and assumes that such data sets are self-evident. My reading of the Globe's story is as follows:

Women don't go into engineering, it turns out, because of individual choice. Now, it's true that others argue that such a conclusion ignores the deep structural issues that provide the context from which one could make an individual choice. But what the hell, let's act like those who don't like this conclusion are just whining. So, to repeat, it's all about women just choosing not to be engineers. And now we know.

I'll risk putting it yet another way: the most robust research into the issue of gender and engineering and science has dug more deeply to understand better the contexts of choice and career decisions. How does one perceive options? From where are those options perceived? Who built those options? What pressures are there that define prominent choices? Who has developed those pressures? Where did they come from? And so on. This new report instead says that choice and career decisions explain themselves. End of story.

Jake at Pure Pedantry also has a comment. I also talked to Suzanne from Thus Spake Zuska off-line--I was so confused by the report I had to confirm that I wasn't missing something--and expect she'll have more commentary on this as well.

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Well, of course they're not interested. Like, who'd wanna date some engineery geek-girl? Hullo!

By abbynormal (not verified) on 20 May 2008 #permalink

Women should stick to girly stuff like flying F-16s or running for President, and leave tough jobs like being a college professor for the boys.

By andythebrit (not verified) on 20 May 2008 #permalink

How does one perceive options? From where are those options perceived? Who built those options? What pressures are there that define prominent choices? Who has developed those pressures? Where did they come from? And so on.

this is a fair point, but the same sort of subtle nuance never seems to crop up when people know that since there aren't enough women in S & E we need to do outreach. IOW, there is a proportionalist presupposition which all Good People are supposed to share.

I was reading about this yesterday when I stumbled across this fantastic photo of Soviet-era women engineering students over at English Russia. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

I also think all engineering students, men and women, should carry sidewalk chalk with them at all times.

A fair point too about outreach imperatives, Razib, though ultimately I'm not sure what it gets us. For example, noting possible problems with proportionalist assumptions doesn't help develop new research questions and research methods that could further investigate the gender dynamics of engineering and science. (I'm also not sure that it follows that seeking to understand the gender dynamics of engineering and science means presupposing proportionalism. We don't have to assume, a priori, that the goal of gender research is to have 50 women for every 50 men. It's more common from the researchers I know to ask about what leads to the current proportions in eng and sci, if those are just and fair, from what basis they came, and if those can be changed.) More relevant, I think, is the moral and political question: what kind of world do you/we want?

Female EE here (actually a female analog electrical engineer, which I know places me somewhere in Yeti territory). I was definitely one of the few women in my college classes, and am presently the only woman in my department at work. I can't speak for anyone else, obviously, but I do know that in my case, the major driving factor in choosing my education and career has been "what do I find interesting?" But I'm guessing that for a lot of women, their personal interests often get put on the back burner in favor of social considerations, because girls are frequently socialized from birth to prioritize social considerations.

I don't think it's really possible to hack out what is "nature" and what is "nurture" in this regard -- but the bottom line is that at least with the nurture angle, we can do something to help equalize the playing field. In order for the "well, it's all a personal choice!" argument to hold when it comes to topics like "why aren't there more women engineers?", you'd have to have a situation where girls were not socialized the way girls currently tend to be socialized.

I mean, a lot of the assumptions people make about "what girls are like" are invisible even to them!

For instance, it amazes me sometimes to see the kinds of upbringing situations people consider "neutral". I read an anecdote a while back about a father who finally bought his daughter a Lego set when she was maybe 9 years old, and took it as a Sign(TM) that she had her brothers put the set together. And all I could think was, "Um, you wait until the kid is NINE to get her a construction toy for the first time, and you think you can use her response as a datum in favor of girls lacking the Building Gene? Try again!"

I just saw this study in "reddit" (only the title, didn't click on the link) and was pretty shocked -- very good to find here some important questions towards that kind of research (like:

"How does one perceive options? From where are those options perceived? Who built those options? What pressures are there that define prominent choices?"

) and perspective that brings socialisation and the production and reproduction of gender identities and gendered expectations and "values" into view. Thank you!

I think the data is quite clear (data in general, this study sounds like Meyers-Briggs crap to me): more women are being successfully recruited into the sciences, but retention is problematic. Problems with retention usually point at issues within the faculties.

Think about it: it was the women's CHOICE to go into the sciences in the first place. Something must make them drop out. And as other studies suggest that most of them drop out by the time they have an advanced degree, around the 30th year of age, this really does not point to "personal preference" as a good justification for their decision.

Plus, didn't this study look at people who were ALREADY in IT or other careers? One should look at a sample of women (and men) who decided to leave a hard science career at around 30 years of age. That might just shed some light on the decision-making process.

I'm actually getting a degree in a department where women are fairly well represented (sadly, I'm not an engineer), and about 50% of my fellow grad students are women, but it's very true that there's a high drop out rate from the profession post-PhD. I know with many of my colleagues, it has a great deal to do with wanting to raise a family. It is very hard to leave the biomedical sciences for the length of time it takes to have a baby, or to then take some more time out to raise the child, and then come back to the field.

To succeed in the biomedical sciences (and I have no doubt this applies to engineering as well), you have to be continuously collecting data, publishing, and keeping abreast of the latest developments. Without constant work, you have much less of a chance of getting funding, and thus even less of a chance of getting anything done in the future. Women who I have seen have children and then return to the field often begin sending the child to daycare by the time they are 6 weeks old, because they know that to take more time off is to endanger their career.

I think more recruitment and awareness needs to be out there, but I also think that there need to be programs in place that will allow women (and men who want to be stay-at-home dads for a while) to take extended leave without endangering their funding or their labs.

As a woman with a PhD in experimental physics, I'm very glad to read that the 'logic' of this article alludes you. I haven't read this particular article or the research it claims to cover, but I'm very familiar with studies on women in physics, math and engineering. The attitude that women just aren't interested in these things frankly makes me livid; this would not be a socially acceptable explanation for under-representation by any other group of people. To me, the simple fact that there are countries (and eras) where gender distributions in these field are (or were) close to 50/50 strongly suggests that the gender gap is actually much more cultural in nature.

People see what they want to see. I recall a colloquium (about 5 years ago) in our Department of Physics about statistics on gender distribution in the field gathered by the Canadian Association of Physicists. Objective facts reported included that there had previously been a higher proportion of women in the field in Canada, that there were several countries where the distribution was close to equal, that there was attrition in the proportion of women at every stage of eduction. And yet, during the question period a prof in the audience suggested "Women just aren't interested in physics." The same prof would be mortified to mis-understand simple statistics on any other subject.

By minouette (not verified) on 22 May 2008 #permalink

I am not a scientist, but I think about these kinds of questions a lot. I have a three year old daughter and I am in the fifth year of my PhD program in history. I WILL finish my PhD and I am still optimistic about getting a job as a professor in my field. But I am always stressed out about the prospect of moving my family to another city if I need to. Just to confirm some of my fears, my mother-in-law recently asked me, "What about Matt?" (her son; my partner) This is despite the fact that she had two of her children on the other side of the country (with NO family support), so that she could support her husband's career choices. Then, I was watching "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast" with my daughter and they made me feel sick. The message in both of those films - that it is perfectly acceptable (not to mention, ROMANTIC!) for women to leave everything behind for their man (even an abusive one) - is so potent! It has me - a feminist academic - doubting myself!
I think this trend continues to persist in the liberal arts as well. I know of at least two academic partnerships, where the woman dropped out of our program because "she didn't want it as bad" as her significant other. And, I know of one more person contemplating the same decision. I also know several other examples, where female friends finished their PhDs and took non-academic or lesser-academic jobs to avoid disrupting their family lives. And I live in Canada, where we are given 1 year maternity leave.
I know there are some examples of the opposite scenario, but ever since I have had a child, it has become increasingly evident to me that women continue to give up their careers for the men in their lives or their families. There are too many examples that reinforce this trend in our culture to escape it - even if many women make this choice because they "want to."
That's my two cents...