Female Engineering Student Stereotypes
This past weekend, I interviewed Star Simpson, an MIT student who is highly involved in the creative engineering community in Cambridge. I’m sure that I’ll have multiple posts that relate back to our conversation, but one thought in particular has been sticking with me: what does it mean to be feminine?
In addition to speaking with Star, I also spent this past weekend volunteering backstage at The Femme Show, which was a series of performance art pieces exploring feminine queer identity. One of the pieces was about being high-maintenance and how high-maintenance is often used as a pejorative word in a queer context to marginalize feminine women as “needy”. The point was that being high-maintenance is a lot more complicated than needing constant attention and that there are actually a lot of strong, valuable feminine qualities rolled up into it. I’m still a little ambivalent about that piece – mostly because I don’t want to celebrate being high-maintenance and I don’t like that it is being so closely associated with femininity.
On the subject of femininity, Star and I somehow got on the subject of shaving. As it turns out, neither of us shaves albeit for different reasons. To paraphrase Star, “it seems like a waste of time. Instead of shaving, I could be doing engineering – that’s what all of the guys are doing”. I thought that was a really interesting thing to say. Later that day, I was talking to a couple male friends of mine and they were shocked by this: “how much time does it really take?”
The more I think about it, the more I think it’s about priorities. Star and I also spent a lot of time talking about what it means to be a good engineer. Part of her motivation for learning how to machine was to become a better engineer who was more grounded in the realities of making things. She clearly priorities engineering prowess very highly – so it makes sense for “grooming” (as my male friends termed it) to fall to the wayside when balancing how much time/energy a person has. Since priorities are value judgments, they don’t necessarily have anything to do with how much time a particular activity takes – just the value of it.
As I continue with tangents – while researching engineering stereotypes, I stumbled upon an interesting abstract:
“A focus group of male engineering students told us that women in engineering were ‘nerdettes’ who are plain or ugly, despite visual evidence to the contrary [my emphasis]. Senior women engineers increasingly tried to look inconspicuous in order to avoid hostile or situationally-inappropriate attention from faculty and peers, or to avoid common accusations from faculty that they were flirting. Both men and women engineers spoke of how women students gradually cease to wear make-up, adopt unisex clothes, and dress their hair simply — all of which feed the myth of the unattractive woman engineer. The women engineers seem stuck with trying to address the impossible problem of dealing with these stereotypes. One of the study’s participants suggested women may avoid considering engineering due to knowledge about the difficulties of operating in a hostile male culture.” (National Academy of Engineering, 2006)
So, according to this study, female engineering students seem to fall into the stereotypes around them even if they don’t originally conform to those stereotypes. That’s so surprising to me – I haven’t noticed that in my experience at all. To fit this into my previous framework, maybe the women in this study are re-aligning their priorities to the (predominantly male) community around them. Actually, I’m not sure that framework fits, it sounds like this paper might be describing more of a coping mechanism. Hmmm, something to think about.
I feel like there should be a way to fit femininity into engineering. The central question in the feminist technology studies space that I have been exploring is: are women being changed by engineering? Or is the influx of women engineers changing engineering? It seems like everything is pointing towards women being changed by engineering but I so badly want it to be the other way around. Perhaps part of this project will be envisioning what a “changed engineering” would be like.
In future posts, I hope to discuss my thoughts on: engineering creativity, what is the “best” engineer?, women and machining and the value of femininity to engineering.