Let’s Talk: Women in Engineering

By Yuqiao Wang (ChE ‘19)

After a 9 a.m. fluid mechanics lecture, I opened Facebook, and saw the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) had updated the event “Let’s Talk.” I am always into such an activity, and The Pioneer asked me to report the event, so I refreshed myself with a grande Americano and arrived at the event place at 12 p.m. sharp, disregarding the tiresome two hours of calculation on momentum balance. At the event, although only twenty people showed up, everyone seemed interested and attentive; everyone thoughtfully answered their fellows’ questions.

As the meeting was about to start, SWE president Isabella Pestovski (ME ‘19) told the audience that recently, SWE’s proposal of increasing the percentage of female faculty members in the engineering school turned out to be fruitful. This September, three of the newly-recruited professors were women: One of them was in mathematics department, whereas the other two were in chemical engineering department. Such progress was unusual and groundbreaking in a context that “teachers” are defaulted to be women while “professors” are defaulted to be men, particularly at an engineering school. Likewise, female students are scarce as well.

Camille Chow (EE ‘19), the vice-president of SWE and one of the only five third-year women from the electrical engineering department, mentioned in the interview: “In our engineering school, girls are pretty rare in the electrical engineering and mechanical engineering departments. One of the EE classes in the past few years even had only one female student.”

When talking about the obstacles that women engineers encountered, one of the first-years said: “The word ‘woman engineer’ means being a trailblazer since such a small percentage of engineers are women. When I am articulating myself, a general worry is that people take me less seriously or will doubt my abilities due to my gender.”

During the interview, the girls expressed their miscellaneous opinions, with great eagerness and insight. One of the second-years commented: “Sometimes at school, I can sense male professors’ subtle attitude toward their female students. On one hand, they recognize the intelligence and bravery of young women majoring in science and engineering; on the other hand, they regard the girls at engineering school as merely mascots or decorations in the classroom.”

Delphine Troast (ChE ‘21), defined women engineers to be “hard working,” “likely to face opposition,” and “empowering.” Women engineers have to stand out from the crowd, which is against society’s traditional perception of women: quiet, emotional and submissive.

Gertrude Dabo (ME ’20), the only African female student in the sophomore mechanical engineering class, expressed her feminist concerns: “A woman engineer is someone who goes against what society believes she should do and sets her own path. Female engineers are often underestimated and viewed as incapable of handling more complicated tasks, especially if you are a minority.”

Following Gertrude, another sophomore classmate commented: “The biggest issue is the lack of respect towards women engineers. Some people still have the backwards stereotypical mindset towards women, and they find it hard to accept the successes of women in engineering. The term signifies unity within an underrepresented group. Hopefully someday there will be no need to include the word ‘women’ in ‘women engineer;’ instead, the latter part, ‘engineer,’ should be the essence of discussion.”

The scene of discussion reminded me of a technical writing seminar I attended this April: I looked around the classroom and realized that I was the only woman in the midst of my male classmates and professors. Although I interacted with the guest speaker actively during Q&A, I couldn’t help but feel like I stood out from the room.

The voice of my female classmates revealed that the barrier in front of women engineers is not only intellectual but cultural. Moreover, the key to rewrite the unfair system is nowhere but within women’s own hands, as conveyed in Camille’s interpretation of ‘woman engineer:’ “The phrase ‘woman engineer’ to me is simply referring to an engineer that happens to be a women. If you are aspiring and capable, simply forget you are a woman and strive to excel in your field with the fullest devotion. All the reputation, admiration and credibility upcoming will then be automatic.”

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