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Female Engineering Student Stereotypes

October 6, 2009

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2009 05:01

    Awesome blog!

    I thought about starting my own blog too but I’m just too lazy so, I guess Ill just have to keep checking yours out.

  2. Ryan Mitchell permalink
    December 18, 2009 12:44

    Hey hey, Casey!

    I think shaving, or the lack of, is about as big a social/feminist statement as wearing deodorant. Have there been times when I haven’t done either because I’ve been too busy with other things? Sure. But when I have a hot date, those suckers are s-h-a-v-e-d! Not because I’m subservient to men, or I care less about engineering than the smoothness of my gams, but because I’d expect the guy to shave (and wear deodorant, and a clean shirt!) just as much as he would expect me to. It’s a social nicety to be well-groomed, according to the occasion.

    Why can’t we stop focusing on engineering as a sort of weird lifestyle cult, and just look at it like any other profession? Can I shave my legs if I’m a corporate lawyer, but not an accountant? Is it alright for me to wear makeup if I’m a teacher, but not a social worker?

    Can I still be feminine if I like to eat liver and listen to Chopin while studying actuarial tables?

  3. Mare permalink
    December 31, 2009 13:09

    Thanks for this blog, it gave me the opportunity to express a little bit. Even on this “modern” days, women engineer are still facing a lot of stereotypes issues. Example, I found out this blog doing a search about what to wear for my job as engineer. I’m not rookie, but I started noticing that with time, I changed from being the in-style college fashion, chic girl to… Is really a she, I though it was a boy with long hair and big chest? My hair is so simple, my clothes so neutral and nothing stylish, I’m a mess and in my early 30. I decided to stop with these “surviving style” because, even if you try to “dress” for their expectation, nothing change, ur still a woman and maybe the only female in the group so… Ur still on disadvantage. And I decided that if I’ll be continuously on disadvantage, at least I’m going to do it with grace!

  4. May 20, 2010 11:51

    love this!! I’m a female in engineering at my school and I understand completely! xoxo ❤

  5. Prete permalink
    November 11, 2011 09:09

    Why engineering misogyny might be different than other misogyny: For several years I have been assisting in instructing graduates in how to conduct themselves at their convocation ceremonies. Each ceremony has about 500 graduates. The engineers consistently have unique troubles that need to be trouble-shot. To me, it has become obvious that these problems are not due to engineer arrogance, though that is an easier interpretation. I think the trouble is that, as is well known, a significantly greater number of engineers are autistic / experience Asperger’s than the population as a whole. It becomes very obvious when there are 500 engineers in one room, trying to take instructions very quickly. Some things are going remarkably smoothly compared to other groups and some things are not happening at all.

    I am noting this experience because I think that the misogyny of male engineers towards female engineers is likely distinct from a misogyny where the group was not almost uniquely expressing traits of autism. Many men I know with Asperger’s experienced a great deal of stress around dating, seeing women as an almost overwhelming mystery. They also tend to marry women who can accept their difficulties and assist them, for example, with tasks like clothes shopping that they find intimidating. Asperger’s being sometimes described as a very masculine way of being, the partners of Aspie’s who marry someone who fill’s their gaps are often nuturing-feminine.

    Certainly this does not describe all engineering gender and sex relations. The line that got me thinking about this was regarding women changing their appearance because they are accused of flirting. It seems to me that engineers would have a more difficult time than average deciding when someone was flirting with them, because they are on average autistic, and be more likely to confuse attractive or feminine appearance with an attempt to be flirtatious rather than simply looking “presentable”. Looking presentable includes exhibiting the gender one feels most comfortable as. If this does not include shaving your legs or face because you are trying to express something about masculinity, femininity, androgyny, or something similar by being unshaven, I do not think that makes you unpleasant or dirty. You should be able to look presentable with or without shaving if its done intentionally. These choices include some implied sexuality for all genders, but its not flirtation. It seems like this might be harder than usual for engineers as a group to comprehend. It seems also that women are portrayed, especially to men, as a complicated socializing mystery. This would make socially atypical people feel threatened by the presence of a difficult social puzzle at work. This would make some of both male and female engineers want the difficulty – femininity – to go away.

    I think an engineering feminism would want to consider autism and the way autistic persons are taught (or un-taught) in particular to see women the misogyny and fear of feminine expression. It is possible that this is a more unique problem than misogyny in general. People may simply want socializing to be flat and uncomplicated, and genders clear with clear rules, because they find sexuality – even the implied sexuality of looking attractive at work – more difficult than usual to navigate.

    If you want to change people’s behaviour, you need to figure out where they are coming from, no?

  6. October 10, 2014 16:00

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