Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Women in Engineering and Technology

First of all, my sister is an engineer, and it's just the two of us kids in our family. So if what I say comes off sexist or racist, I'm probably more feminist than my sister, and for the record, being an even mildly feminist man doesn't help at all wooing the ladies. My sister just wrote a blog post on being a woman in engineering and it inspired me to write this. Only about one in seven engineers is female and that has pretty much been her experience.  As for the racist part, you are welcome to call me racist if you want, but then again I'm trying to start Sustainable South Sudan, and you're not helping me. I am afraid that whatever I say as a white American male, anything I say will come off racist and sexist. Hey, I didn't pick my parents. On the other hand, and the reason I am going through with publishing this, if I don't talk about it, how will we ever encourage more women, and minorities, to get into engineering and technology?

I have been thinking about this for some time since Google released it's employment demographics a few weeks ago. When I first heard that Google was 30% female I was stunned! I was amazed! I thought, 'how in the world did they get so many women?!' It was roughly the same for their ethnicity, I thought, 'only 61% white?! Where did they get all the other ethnic groups?' That being said, 30% Asian actually makes a lot of sense between Japanese, Indian, and Chinese citizens or descendants. I think my reaction was actually somewhat opposite the mainstream media's reaction to "diversity" in the technology sector.

Since I originally wrote this post, I was letting it simmer so that I had time to revise it again before I publish. In the last week Yahoo came out with it's diversity numbers. Once again, the details, directly from Yahoo, are not actually that surprising to me. Basically 15% of the technical staff is female.

The company I work at is roughly the same person count size as Google, and from my experience has far fewer than 30% women. In my limited experience it seems we have about 10% women, but my experience is nearly all direct engineering, not marketing or supply management or manufacturing. When I was part of the FEA group, we had one woman, out of like 40 employees. How's that, a 2.5% ratio? For the record, it's a little hard to directly compare statistics at a place of work when accounting for contractors and contingent personal, also for a global company like mine with several working groups split into several countries but effectively reporting to the same person. Now, it's not that 40 people in several different countries actually report to the same person, but effectively they do. Global organizations are complicated to say the least. Yet as W.L. Gore has shown, clear organization is not necessary to stay in business. The point being, of those 40, maybe only 10 (including the one woman) would show up in the official statistics because the rest are contractors or work in a different company and have a different official reporting structure.

In college in my aerospace engineering class of 2008, I think of about 40 graduates three were women. Those are approximate, because I'm not 100% sure who was aerospace versus mechanical engineering with aerospace concentration, but you get the picture. Materials science was very different, maybe 30-40% women, pretty stunning actually. In my graduating class at semester there were only two of us, and the other graduate was a woman. These are all anecdotal of course, your experience in engineering and technology will vary of course.

Why is it this way? Well, first of all, I think that there will never be an equal 50% split between men and women in science, technology, engineering and math fields. I feel that way because I know enough women and their husbands, and a lot of women make the decision to stay home and raise the kids. Yes I know two stay at home dads too, but they are in the minority. Still, why is it not 45%/55% women to men or at least 40%/60%? There were always more girls than boys in my high school advanced classes like calculus and college biology and physics. In fact, in my high school physics class of about 18 people, only two of us were male. Why did the two of us go into engineering while I think all the ladies in that class went into less technical careers? I feel that it has to do predominately with cultural expectations, and to a lesser extent the college support structure. Men are engineers that go to the office and do math, by themselves, and sit at a desk. Women work with people and collaborate in team environments, like a nurse on staff. Honestly, I think that cultural expectations are the major reason for the disconnect. There is also an attitude of competition in science and engineering, not necessarily direct, but the curriculum is tough and teaches you how to solve problems. A lot of people, men and myself included, often dove into the work alone for hours at a time, and while obviously working in teams and getting help from others is necessary, I am afraid that women see the system and don't want to do the solitary number crunching that college presents as "engineering". Now, actually in industry as a design engineer I spend probably 15 hours a week in meetings, another 10 hours a week talking to people informally about my projects, and then maybe 15-20 hours a week actually doing work at my desk. It is so different than college, there is very little on your own technical work, at least in my view. Design engineering is more like art meets sales. We create some art and then try to sell it to the rest of the team, making changes as they recommend until it is very functional art.

On the college support side, classes are not like the real world. There are similarities, but the differences are dramatic. I am afraid that throughout the formal college education process many possible engineers are not supported well enough. In other words, people skills don't get you strait A's in an engineering college, but they might get you CEO in a company.

I should really have high school job shadows now, because some days I feel like all I do is go to meetings and talk to people, Thursdays especially. True story, today I was running a machine in the morning to show a function to some South Koreans then in the afternoon I was running an impact gun changing worn bolts on one of the designs I am responsible for. I always enjoy asking women in engineering how we can get more women in engineering. I mean, I think in some small way I helped motivate my sister into it and I would like to get more women to try out science and technology. The way I think of it is, with an engineering degree, you can teach school, you can go to medical school, you can get an MBA, you can go to law school, you can start a business, and oh yeah, you can be an engineer too. Without an engineering degree, you certainly can't engineer, and chances are your degree will be much more limiting.

A standard argument for a liberal arts degree is that it expands your mind and shows you different ways to think about things, no one says that about a science or engineering degree, but those people obviously haven't sat through Compressible Fluid Dynamics or Intermediate Physics Mechanics II, not to mention studying relativity. I'm biased of course because I have two engineering degrees. I feel that there should be more engineers in the world. We get stuff done. Science is just amazing! Gears for example are simply fascinating.

Looking forward, I won't always engineer. At some point I would like to teach. I also have some other career goals which don't involve engineering. Yet, engineering is fulfilling, and often social, and there is no other education path which I feel would have developed my career and progressed my life like engineering has. For those of you that think, 'people like me don't go into science, technology, engineering, or math.' We want you! We want you to come to our meetings and say something we had not thought of, yet was actually realistic.

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