Tag: Engineering Traditions

Women and technology. If it is not appropriate for women, it is not appropriate: Part 5 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

Women and technology. If it is not appropriate for women, it is not appropriate: Part 5 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

As I mentioned in my last post about my engineering journey, I wrote a letter that got forwarded to the curriculum committee when I was an undergraduate student studying chemical engineering. I felt that the narrow focus of the chemical engineering graduation requirements, which only valued the technical aspects of engineering, resulted in “flat and uncaring human beings,” and that the education needed to include social sciences and humanities. Sending the letter brought up a lot for me—I was excited, I had put my voice out there, and I was heard. I was also vulnerable and insecure, some things that I was not so comfortable experiencing.

Once I sent the letter, a faculty member invited me to his office to discuss what I had written; I will call him Professor X. I listened as he convinced me that, based on my letter, I should not have been studying chemical engineering. Essentially, that if I wanted a more holistic education, I should not be in engineering. In his office, I believed him. I remember sitting there crying. I thought, “I should have done something else, but it was too late.” I was only two semesters away from graduation, and I decided I might as well finish the degree.

Now that I have a bit of time, research, and experience behind me, I can say that the professor was wrong, and that he never should have discouraged me. Engineering education should be more inclusive, and Prof. X should have been more cognizant of both the gender and power dynamics of the situation he created. All of those involved in engineering education need to understand the roles that gender and authority play in our field.

The first topic, that engineering should be more inclusive and holistic, is something that I have focused on a lot in the blog (I will make this paragraph short, but please do read past posts… like this one). Since engineering education was established in the United States, there has been discussion and reports regarding the need for engineering to encompass a broader base of education. It is not me who should be excluded from engineering based on my gender and ideas… it is engineering that should provide a more inclusive and holistic space.

Second, there is a gender dynamic present that cannot be ignored. I was (and still am) a woman who chose to pursue engineering. I was told explicitly in my science and engineering courses that I did not belong; more than that, I often implicitly felt a sense of separation. The first time I was singled out was in high school chemistry class. I had a male teacher who pulled me and four other students (all female) aside to tell us to enroll in another teacher’s class for the second semester because we “talked too much.” I believed he was upset with me in particular because I asked advanced chemistry questions that he was unable to answer. He may have taken this as me challenging his authority, or even thinking I was smarter than he was, as I also had one of the highest grades in the class. So I changed classes, only to have my new chemistry teacher (also male) single me out again and embarrass me repeatedly without me really provoking anything. I guess chemistry teachers talk to each other. This punishing behavior is fairly common within Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Female STEM students are made to feel as though they don’t have as much to offer, or that they aren’t valuable to the program.

Luckily, I had a number of female science teachers, and an engineering aunt, who made sure to pull me aside and express to me that they believed in me. They encouraged me by telling me that I showed talent. My science teacher freshman year had significant influence on me and also taught physics. She encouraged me to take physics my sophomore year, and to follow it with AP physics my junior year. Because of her advice and encouragement, I had an advanced knowledge of science. Of course, this led to my having the advanced chemistry questions that caused so many problems.

Unfortunately, I found that these damaging gender dynamics were also in play at Berkeley. I apparently was not the only woman that Prof. X singled out to have a conversation with in his office. This professor had talked to a number of women. The people that I talked to were still in the program, but it makes me wonder: how many students left the program because of these talks?

These confrontations are too common in STEM professions as a whole. I would not be surprised if more than half of the women in STEM fields could identify times when they were singled out by teachers, lab mates, faculty members, and peers and told that they did not belong. I have friends who still struggle with this regularly as graduate students, post docs, and even faculty members. It says a lot about the dedication and tenacity of the female STEM professional who goes through this type of persecution and still stays in the field. It takes a lot of bravery, passion, and hope that the STEM culture will become more inclusive.

So the third issue: power dynamics. There is a dynamic in faculty-student interactions and within the technical-nontechnical relationship. As a faculty member, there are certain roles and responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with your position of authority. What you say holds weight with students who respect you and your opinion. Prof. X may have been merely suggesting that I should not have been in engineering, or he could have been performing some sort of thought experiment. Whatever his reasoning, he should not have introduced these opinions because of his authority. His position leant the words an immediate gravitas that they didn’t deserve.

Additionally, many engineers have the tendency to dismiss the non-technical. There is an assumption that social sciences and humanities are often somehow “less-than” engineering, and do not deserve as much standing, time, or money. This power dynamic plays out in many ways, and is worth it’s own blog post. I may go into this more another day.

Overall, engineering needs to be seen as more inclusive, and all the people in power – faculty members, teachers, and employers, have a responsibility to be cognizant of gender and power dynamics present in STEM fields.

If you have had similar experiences within STEM, feel free to share in the comments below.

Image by :: De todos los Colores :: licensed under CC.  Image translation: The image above reads “If it is not appropriate for women, it is not appropriate. Women and technology.”


Silent Traditions- Part 2 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

Silent Traditions- Part 2 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

By Julia Thompson, Ph.D.

The same semester that I started to prioritize my interests, I took an energy and society course and read the article, “The Silent Traditions of Developing Cooks,” by Emma Crewe. This paper initiated my reflections on the “silent traditions” of engineering and how the education system perpetuates these traditions.

In the paper, Dr. Crewe described how Americans and Europeans attempted to provide aid through cook stoves in Asia and Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. These projects were being funded based on the premise that new stoves would save trees, help poor women, provide opportunities for local artisans, and reduce pollution. The “developers” were known as “stovies” and were largely mechanical engineers and energy experts with economics backgrounds. In their attempt to help people in Asia and Africa, the “stovies” came face to face with their own “silent traditions,” underlying cultural norms that ultimately resulted in the projects’ failure. Here are two incorrect assumptions the developers made through their work.

  1. Fuelwood crisis

The push to develop cook stoves was largely driven by the wood fuel crisis, a concern that the growing population of households that used biomass for their main energy production would be a main driver in deforestation. However, the “experts” on these development projects did not recognize that the greatest threat to deforestation was the clearing of land for agriculture, and not for fuel. Once the fuelwood crisis was debunked, donors began to pull their funding. It was at this time that the real needs of the community emerged, such as the need to address indoor air pollution.

Basically, the stoves were well-funded when they were useless and the funding stopped as soon as the designs started to meet the needs of the communities.

  1. Not validating the (female) users expertise

Because of the threat of deforestation, the first round of stoves focused primarily on fuel efficiency and did not prioritize the users’ experience. The stoves were designed by technical experts (mainly male engineers) and did not include the people using the stoves (mainly women). Among the engineers was an expected norm that the local customs were “backward” and were inferior to the scientific approach of the West. Additionally, women’s work was seen as inferior and disconnected from technology. These beliefs resulted in engineers working on these stoves specifically for fuel efficiency and not the cooking desires of the users. Later studies showed that many of the stoves designed by engineers were less efficient than the previous practices of the female uses. For example, Zimbabwean cooks used less fuel by building a wall around an open flame and immediately extinguishing the flame once they were done cooking, while the engineers were focused on not having an open flame to save on efficiency.

The connection to my journey

Reading this paper as an undergraduate student was an insightful experience and began a personal paradigm shift. At that time, if I were to design a stove for a community in Kenya, I would probably have done exactly what those engineers did. I would have thought that I needed to design for fuel efficiency and would have been blinded by all other dynamics. I am ashamed to say that I held many of the same assumptions and did not considering larger social issues, such as environmental degradation, gender dynamics, and power/privilege within the scope of engineering. Yet, these topics influenced engineering design.

In recent years, I have seen students at a sustainability conference highlighting their stove designs for villages in Haiti, saying that the cost was only $10 (something that would be out of reach for a Haitian) and requiring parts that would not be available on the island.

It may be easy to see the importance of these issues in the context of cookstoves; yet, similar dynamics are present throughout our society. How often do the engineers who design the distillation towers at the oil refinery recognize the communities that live downwind of these towers? Or the environmental lifecycle of the office chair? Before I read this article, I saw these concerns for “someone else”– the non-engineer. I did not know who this “person” was, but it was not me.

Now, I realize that I was a person in this “design,” that I had a responsibility to learn about the world and not just answer problems to make sure that a bridge did not collapse. I also realized that the education system has a responsibility to train students to address societal problems. If engineers are not taught about the social complexities they are situated in, and only are taught to use specific information needed to solve the problem given, they will continue to just do the work in front of them. We need complex thinkers, not cogs in a machine.

Personal Reflection

I am feeling confident about this post, and also a bit suspicious of my confidence. I got positive feedback from the first one, and that eased my worries a bit. I think this post in particular is well-written and gets to the heart of many issues. However, I have in the past thought that I was being coherent and grounded, but I wasn’t. I am pretty sure that is not happening here, but that fear is still present in me.

For a head’s up, I will be posting my story every Thursday. I have gotten a handful of people committed to contributing to the site (yay!). When the stories start coming in I will be posting those on Tuesdays.