As a professional female engineer I am constantly fighting stereotypes. Some people see me and think I'm a secretary. Some people assume I'm dumb and just got the job because I'm a woman. Some people assume my gender precludes me from certain types of work. While it's weirdly fulfilling to shock people with my ninja engineering skills, it definitely can wear on me.
The easy solution is to blame these associations on the men that dominate the profession,. But the truth is some of the biggest opposition in making engineering a normal job for women is actually other women.
In engineering, I've come across a spectrum of women:
|Note that this is a spectrum, and that not all women fall into a single category|
On one extreme is the ultra feminist who constantly points out oppression. She asks that women not be forgotten, and constantly reminds people of the gender divide.
In the middle is the woman who counts herself as equal to (not better than) male counterparts. When at work her focus is her job, not her gender.
On the other extreme is the woman who was forced into engineering and is waiting to get married. She asks that men continue to treat her as a "lady".
All three groups arguably have their issues, which I can discuss in a future post. But some members of group 3 voice their lack of passion for engineering in such a way that they reinforce damaging stereotypes - holding the rest of women back. It is this group which I think can have the same impact as a misogynistic man, and which I believe warrants further discussion.
For example there is the case of Jane, a Type 3 engineer. Jane is a 3rd generation engineer, and a nth generation aspiring housewife. Whenever Jane gets work she doesn't want to have to do, she denies it because it is not "women's work" and would be shameful to undertake. Things that are not "women's work" include : driving, making large decisions rationally, and anything else she doesn't feel like doing that day. She also frequently asks if her clients will be young eligible bachelors when she is assigned a project. I wish I was joking.
The problem with this is not only that she is destroying her own reputation, but that the men who have worked with her for years come to actually believe that there is such a thing as "women's work" and hesitate assigning projects to other women. Several men have voiced concern when assigning me complex tasks, since Jane had previously complained that it was "man's work". In my mind, this is the single most damaging thing to the inclusion of women in the workplace - because while men can be punished for expressing that women are unable to complete tasks as a result of their gender, women are less likely to be chastised for the same behavior. And, generalizations are more likely to be considered true when they are endorsed by a member of that group.
While I understand that behavior in Jane and others like her is not necessarily driven by a hatred of other women, I believe it is driven by an appalling lack of respect for the capabilities of women. The damage that this behavior causes, and the number of women who can be negatively impacted by the actions of just one other woman is staggering.
In order to prevent this damage, we each do two simple things to help change the world's perception of female engineers:
1) Attribute your own likes and dislikes and strengths and weaknesses to yourself instead of your gender. We are all individuals and have different tastes and interests.
2) Encourage women to pursue a career they are passionate about (not necessarily just engineering). There is a thin line between encouraging someone to consider a different field and forcing her to join a career which does not interest her.
Each one of us has the power to impact how society views female professionals, so if we all take simple measures we can make the lives of other women just a little bit easier.