A number of our readers received a supplemental issue of MACHINE DESIGN in July geared toward design management. In it, "The Absence of Estrogen," authored by two staff editors, Amy Higgins and Sherri Koucky discussed some of the variables that have kept or even driven women out of the engineering arena. Sherri also wrote an editorial, "Breaking up the old boys club," which targeted the issues they unearthed.
I expected readers to respond to the articles. I was disheartened but not particularly surprised by what some of them wrote. A few letters were positive, but there were a number that were filled with venom. One even accused the "gents" here at the publication of "opening a field desk to the NOW broads." As an engineer, I have something to say about this.
I received my degree in materials engineering and have experienced or witnessed just about everything that Sherri and Amy hit on: from inadequate education and the lack of female role models to unequal pay and even sexual harassment. There were few women in many of my engineering classes and even fewer when I entered the workforce.
In college, the boys tended to band together in their study groups which meant that often, I was competing against a collective intellect instead of single individuals. The men at work also made it hard to compete. It might be argued I brought it on myself, because often I'd bow out when their conversation digressed to the topic of women or other subjects I didn't feel comfortable discussing. To my detriment, I missed out on the technical talk that was interwoven with the sophomoric banter.
But as Sherri said in her editorial, it's hard to talk about this subject without sounding like a victim or a militant feminist. All I know is there is still an upward battle for women aspiring to be engineers and for those already in the profession.
Then again, the tide may be turning. I recently visited ASM International Foundation, Materials Park, Ohio, which was in the midst of hosting a Materials Science Camp for high-school juniors. The gender split was nearly 50/50. They all had strong science and math backgrounds.
Possibly the myth that "girls can't do math" is diminishing. I hope these young women will take with them the same enthusiasm I saw on their faces as they worked alongside the boys in ASM's state-of-the-art test facility. Chances are they will, if they have someone at home who encourages them to take more science and math.
While I was working on this commentary, I pulled out a Duncan yo-yo that my first-grade teacher, Miss Fields, gave me for finishing my math book. She was really the one who instilled in me a love for math and science. She made a difference in my life and I bet she did the same for many others.
I cringe when I think about the negative responses we received on such an important article. I only hope that those readers' daughters or granddaughters have a "Miss Fields" in their lives who will push them to excel. Unfortunately, it appears these young women won't be getting any encouragement at home.