We Need More Ordinary Role Models
There are lots of hypotheses for why men dominate the profession, and I have many of my own. But I am trained as a scientist and so cannot present as a truth something that is not proven.
So instead, I will share my experience and opinion. A point of reflection.
Recently, I was invited to attend a virtual high school STEM workshop which included some female engineers as mentors to share their stories of inspiration. The goal the session was to encourage more young women to enter the engineering profession. I was lucky enough to participate. Each mentor gave a 10–15 minute presentation, including accomplishments. I presented last.
The engineers ahead of me were clearly very talented and had contributed well to the profession in their relatively short careers. One had more awards than I can count and the other worked in space aeronautics. They are super, amazing women. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I felt a little intimidated and I have a PhD and a good career by anyone’s standards. So I wonder how the attendees felt about the speakers.
When I was in undergrad, women represented less than 10% of the student population. From what I could tell, the guys tended to enter because they had a family member in engineering or they had an interest in STEM and the men in their lives encouraged them because its a good job. The women, on the other hand, seemed to land there by chance and often knew little about the profession before entering it. Except they knew that it was hard, especially for a woman.
The goal of the workshop session was intended to encourage these teenage girls to pursue engineering professions. I agree that it is important for high school girls to have more awareness of engineering. However, I think that engineering is still viewed as hard and less welcoming to women. I also believe that women are culturally groomed to questioned themselves and their ability.
So this is my concern…If the only role models we show girls are extraordinary, how do we reach girls who would be good contributing members to the engineering profession? Not necessarily tech stars but solid, contributing members of the profession. Of the men that made up ~90% of my graduating class, not one of them is famous. Yet, I am sure they found a way to put their engineering education to good use.
After the presentations that day I heard lots of positive questions asking about what courses to take and what people actually do during their workday. But I also heard concerns such as, “Is it stressful?”, and “Did you ever think you made a wrong choice?”. I feel like girls are often raised to be perfectionists and wonder if how we show the women in our profession re-enforces this.
I thoughtfully tried to address their questions and concerns. I described the various skills that I learned and how they are transferable to many occupations. I also shared the improvements that I see because there are more women contributing to the profession. Increasing numbers, by definition mean fewer of us feel alone.
So, I think that overall the event was positive. However, I would challenge future organizers (and contributing organizations) to think carefully about the people invited to speak at these types of events.
I am personally challenged by the promotion of super-star engineers as role models. Engineering contributes to every facet of our modern life and society is better served when more perspectives as included. I wonder, if only the women engineering role models are super stars, then we will never bridge the gap?