Sunday, October 13, 2013

Women in Engineering:

Personal Reflections

An article in the New York Times on October 3 on why there are still so few women in science and engineering took me by surprise.  In the first place, I'd just returned from a visit to an alumni leadership conference at my alma mater, MIT, where they were parading all the good news stories about MIT, including that the number of women in the recent classes was hovering very close to 50%.  For someone who had gone to MIT...well...a number of years ago, this was indeed heartening news.  In my own freshman class, only 5% of the class was female--and that was higher than previous classes.

The New York Times article detailed at considerable length the kinds of discrimination, obstacles, and other difficulties that women still face, from professors who try to discourage them from continuing in the science and engineering professions, to difficulty combining careers and a personal life.  It all sounded like stories from a generation ago.

I must say that a part of my reaction to all these stories was that I must have been lucky, because most of these things hadn't happened to me.  And indeed, I may well have been lucky.  Everyone, male or female, ends up with a somewhat different mix of professors, classmates, supervisors and colleagues, and a few bad apples from any of these bins can hamper careers or embitter individuals.  And each of us reacts to stresses and setbacks a little differently.

Like most people, I have had bosses both good and bad.  Fortunately, most were good, and the ones that were bad were just generally bad, and not necessarily sexist.  I weathered the bad ones by remembering that what doesn't kill you outright only makes you stronger--although some days, that was a hard sell.

I can certainly recall incidents where people said things to me that were inappropriate.  And that I don't think they would say today.  And certainly, sometimes I didn't get a position after such a statement, and I wondered at the time if gender discrimination was involved.  But no one gets every job they apply for, so as long as I ended up with good opportunities, I didn't dwell on the missed chances.

But the article stirred up memories of some of those incidents, so for what it's worth, I thought I'd deviate from the usual topics of this blog and recount some of my more vivid memories of sexist comments, mostly from job interviews, as well as some of my reactions and the outcomes of the interviews.

The first story, though, is from a class in graduate school, where a very prominent professor of nuclear engineering (now deceased, and I won't speak ill of the dead) handed back tests, and as he handed me mine, said to the rest of the class (ALL male), You guys let a girl beat you!  I said nothing because I looked down at my paper and saw that the grade was only about 75 (often a good grade at MIT, but still...), so I assumed he was joking.  He wasn't.

From an interviewer at a private company--for a summer job:  I'll bet you played with dolls when you were a child.  "Well...yes."  Boys take their bikes apart and put them together again.  That's the kind of experience we want.  At the time, I was studying at MIT.  I guess that wasn't enough.  I didn't get the job.

From a regional recruiter for a certain government agency known for covert operations (if I name them, they will probably still come after me):  Let me check which jobs are open to women.  When I asked why any jobs would be limited, I was told that some jobs required living in the field.  I said that, with my background, that wasn't the kind of position I was looking for.  I didn't get past the recruiter.

From an interviewer at a US government laboratory:  We had a woman working here once.  She got pregnant and left.  Try to challenge an opinion formed from a sample of one!  Later in that same interview, they started to think about the possible plus sides of having a woman around.  If you worked here, we could send you down to sweet-talk the machinists when we want them to give our work priority.  Fortunately, I got a job offer elsewhere at that point and withdrew my application.

From an interviewer for a private company:  Can you type?  Before I could respond, the interviewer quickly covered his gaff by saying that he meant for working on computers.  (This was back in the dark ages before everyone had a computer on their desk.)  I ended up working for that interviewer.  During the course of my employment there, I had one more memorable conversation with him.  A colleague--a young man who had been with the company for a year or two when I joined--and I went to our boss to propose a business trip.  It would be my first for the company.  My boss looked directly at me and said, You want to go away from your husband?  Again, he realized his gaffe as soon as the words were out of his mouth.  "And you want to go away from your wife?"  he said to my colleague.  A transparent recovery, as my colleague had already been on business trips, but again, we got over that, and I continued to work there for a total of about 8 years.

From an interviewer for a government agency that controls the budgets of other agencies:  Are you married?  Do you have children?  By this time, my response was faster.  "Do you ask the male applicants that?"  They assured me they did, because this was an intense job that required incredibly long hours and many 7-day weeks.  I then said to them, "Tell me the job requirements and let me make the decision as to whether I can make that commitment."  It was exactly the right answer, because they wanted people with the spine to stand up to agency managers.  I was offered the job, but I turned it down.

I'm sure every woman in a technical career has similar stories to tell.  For me, with time and distance, the stories have become mostly amusing, and I think I've managed to succeed despite the challenges these conversations suggest.  But for some women, even today, the negative stories still outweigh the positive ones.  I was very sorry to learn that is still the case.



  1. Thank you for sharing these stories. I'm a more recent female grad of MIT. Sometimes when I look at the make-up of CEOs, faculty, etc. it makes me think we haven't come very far. But then I read your post. I feel very thankful that I've been able to make it through the world without facing such blatantly sexist comments.

  2. Things haven't really changed. I'm male, married to a female engineer for 30+ years. My wife went through this, and now my daughter, an engineering undergrad is calling home with similar stories. Nothing has changed, it makes me sick to think about it.