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.