FEATURE: Engineering Equality

By on September 6, 2017

Women more than measure up to men in the world of science, technology, engineering and math. So why must they work so hard to shatter the sexism in those fields?

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Twenty years into her professional career as an engineer and Echo Miller avoids picking up the phone at her office, she said, because people automatically assume she’s the secretary. It’s annoying but it’s nothing new as a woman in the field of engineering.

Miller always knew she wanted to be an engineer, not because she liked building things or fidgeting with gadgets, but because she liked math—and she was good at it.

However, by her last year of undergrad at the University of Wyoming, she began to question whether she had chosen the right field. Most of her classmates were men—she was often the only woman in her mechanical engineering classes—and most of them had chosen engineering, she said, “because they like gadgets. They like taking things apart and putting things together.”

University of Wyoming was a “very design-oriented school,” and Miller liked equations. She liked analytics, which she didn’t quite find much of at UW.

“I started to question whether I had actually picked the right major,” Miller said, “Clearly I’m an oddball here.”

But then she enrolled in a research exchange program at Boston University for a summer, where she worked with a female graduate student and an advisor on a project propagating sound waves and trying to predict what material the waves were traveling through. Miller had to derive equations to make such predictions. Unlike UW, her work at BU was math-oriented, and analytic.

“It was a match made in heaven,” Miller said. “I thought it was the coolest thing in the world that you could describe a physical phenomenon with an equation.”

It was also one of the first times Miller had worked with another woman in her field. She didn’t think about it at the time, but it was quite possibly her sole female mentor at BU whose example nudged her to persevere. Mentorship is important, Miller said—especially female mentorship in a male-dominated field like engineering.  The Jackson engineer said, “You wish people could forge their own path sometimes. But that’s just not how it works.”

Miller is correct, according to an American Association of University Women research analysis entitled “Why So Few?” mentoring is highly effective at supporting women in STEM fields, but it is also hard to come by. Aside from the grad student at BU, for 20 years Miller was often the only woman in her professional circles, which is the norm.

A separate AAUW study from 2015 found that 12 percent of engineers are women. The number of women in computer science and math has declined from 35 percent in the ‘90s to just 26 percent today. The numbers get even smaller among women of color—black women make up only one percent of the engineering workforce and three percent of the computer science workforce. So the pool of female engineer mentors is low to begin with.

At some point girls just start falling off the  Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) track.  “That’s the paradox, I think,” Miller said. “Girls do well, but don’t follow up with it.” Boys, meanwhile, “don’t do well, but jump right into it.” Miller doesn’t know exactly where women fall through the cracks in STEM fields. But she has a handful of theories about why.

Women, Miller suspects, face higher pressures to perform, in whatever field they choose. Such was certainly the case for Miller—any grade below an A was simply not an option if she wanted to maintain her credibility, or so she thought. While her male colleagues were content with C’s and even D’s, they questioned her worth as an engineer for even getting a B. So she only got A’s. “I couldn’t get a C and be accepted as a female engineer,” she said. “I did have to be better than the guys.”

Although, according to “Why So Few?” while girls assess their mathematical skills as lower than those of boys on par with them, they simultaneously hold themselves to a higher standard than boys do on STEM subjects, “believing they have to be exceptional to succeed in ‘male’ fields.” Even though Miller is partially correct that if women do not immediately and flawlessly excel in STEM they are less likely to stick with it, the reason behind that belief is flawed. If girls are told they can achieve equally well in STEM fields, they are able to more accurately assess their performance and achieve accordingly.

Then there are the insidious effects of expectations in the form of stereotypes on females in STEM. Social psychologists Joshua Aronson, Claude Steele and Steven Spencer coined the term “stereotype threat” in the mid 1990s. Stereotype threat is the fear of being negatively stereotyped or of doing something that confirms such stereotypes. Such a fear accomplishes two things: it either dissuades women, or any under-represented population, from participating in STEM for fear of failing, or it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. For example, the stereotype that boys are better at math than girls results in girls not even trying becuase, “what’s the point?” or they fail because they’re not suppose to succeed at math.

Girls dissecting a specimen alongside a scientist mentor at Women in STEM Conference.

Psychological impacts coupled with deeply engrained biases work hard to maintain the status quo. For instance, another study reviewed by AAUW found that women who were told men perform better on the math section of the GRE in fact performed significantly worse than the men in the same subject group or than the women who were not given that piece of false information. In essence, girls perform as they are expected to perform.

Enter the role of bias. The AAUW study cited the notion that STEM subjects are typically considered “masculine” areas, which do not jibe with female roles. Often people hold negative opinions of women in “masculine” positions like scientists or engineers. The study reported that research showed “people judge women to be less competent than men in ‘malem jobs unless they are clearly successful in the work”—obviously not without exception. However, these gendered roles are fallacies easily overcome with training and active dismantling of biases, by both men and women, as well as through sheer determination as was the case with Miller. Staying the course in STEM as a woman requires resolve and commitment to overcome the biases.

Even with the expectations and obstacles, Miller had that resolve, she said. She was dead set on becoming an engineer. “I had already decided to go along a certain path. I was going follow it through hell or high water.” She brushed off any insinuations that she somehow didn’t belong in her program in college. Similarly, she wasn’t deterred when men in her class made unwanted advances—another not so palatable occurrence—not because they were creeps, she said, but because she was often their only female interaction.

The Google Memo

As a woman in a STEM field, Miller suspects whatever obstacles she has faced are not actually specific to STEM; her field is just a microcosm of society at large.

STEM just happens to be in the spotlight right now, thanks to a 10-page internal memo sent by a former Google software engineer, James Damore, asserting the exact biases noted by the AAUW study. Damore’s memo claimed women are in fact less fit than men to be programmers and computer scientists due to biology and physiology.

This mentality is nothing new, Miller says. But its pervasiveness in such a high profile company suggests women in STEM are still engaged in an uphill battle for recognition and representation.

In early August, Damore’s internal memo entitled, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” warned that Google was mistaking its priorities as a company by promoting diversity and equal gender representation. Citing gender differences, a gender-gap in representation and in pay is not sexist, Damore wrote, it is inherent. “The distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes,” the memo reads, “and that may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”

Damore’s memo, perfectly demonstrates the STEM gender biases, addressing directly the same revelation in the AAUW research review. “Why so Few?” states, “the striking disparity between the numbers of men and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics has often been considered as evidence of biologically driven gender differences in abilities and interests.” The study goes on to say, this is classically formulated as men “naturally” excel in math heavy disciplines and women naturally excel in fields using language. Damore’s memo was almost a verbatim of the study’s findings; he even included visual representations of such misguided notions about these natural characteristics of men and women in his memo.

While Damore is right that gender representation in STEM is far from equal, he appears to be wrong in his reasoning. But Damore’s world—one where women are inherently science or leadership averse—is not the world Miller lives in.

“Women technically do better than men in school,” Miller said. She certainly did. “I don’t think it’s an ability question.” In fact in Miller’s experience, women and girls often do better in math and science classes at an earlier age than men, which at the least is becoming the case now. The AAUW review noted recent gains in girls’ mathematical achievement are likely attributable to a shift in “culture and learning environments in the cultivation of abilities and interests.”

Miller has been directly involved with shifting school culture here in Jackson, where she spent about six years helping run the Lego robotics program at Jackson Hole Middle School. And whether it is something inherent or something practiced, Miller noticed that the girls she taught often had a level of patience required in engineering that boys lacked.

But perhaps these biases go in both directions.

Engineering, Miller said, is about problem-solving. She recalls a middle school student throwing his hands up in frustration one day. He wanted to know the answer. But in engineering, there is hardly ever one right answer. “There are just answers that work better than others.”

“That was the first time some of those kids had encountered a problem that didn’t have an obvious answer.” Engineering is as much about the process as it is about the product. And girls, Miller said, “aren’t afraid of exploring a path.”

But, even though the robotics team at the middle school and at the high school brings together a diverse group of students, it still “didn’t bring together a 50-50 gender split,” Miller said.

Among those middle school students, Miller noticed that she often had to intervene to make sure the girls on the team were getting equal testing time. “I actually had to step in and be like, ‘guys you’re done, it’s their turn,” Miller said. She had never seen such gendered stereotypes play out so obviously as in the middle school classrooms. It’s discouraging, she said.

Sadly, gendered stereotypes are present throughout grade levels. Studies of classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school have found that teachers still call on male students more frequently than female students, even when female students are they only ones with their hands raised. This leads to a pattern of male students participating more frequently than female students—even if they don’t know the answer. This dynamic plays out outside of classrooms, too: in professional settings.

Indeed, contrary to another of Damore’s suggestions—that men are more career-oriented than women—research suggests that gender stereotypes largely contribute to representation in the workforce, and especially in STEM. A study conducted by researchers at Yale found that recruiters in math and science-related fields still favor male candidates over female candidates—even when their qualifications are identical. When presented with identical resumes of two fictional applicants, professors at six major research institutions were still more likely to offer the man a job. And if they did hire the woman, they offered her an average salary $4,000 dollars less than the men’s.

Back to the effect of these inequities—if all girls see are men in lab coats, there’s nothing to tell them that they belong there too. Even Miller questioned whether she had made the right choice until her summer at Boston University. It’s hard to communicate how important and far-reaching science is to young people, girls especially, but young women need to see and hear it the most.

It took time to see an increase in girls joining the robotics team, because it’s a catch 22 of sorts—first girls need to see other girls joining to think they belong. “It took a while to see girls doing it,” Miller said.

Across the board, progress is being made to help close the gender gap in STEM.

In order to better support women in STEM, the AAUW recommends several ways to cultivate girls’ achievement, interest and perseverance in STEM. In the earlier years, it helps greatly to talk about girls’ and women’s achievement in math and science and expose girls to successful female role models. Teach all students about stereotype threats and that intellectual skills grow over time. Encourage girls to develop their spatial skills and to take advanced STEM courses in high school. At the college level, schools can take active steps to improve recruitment of women to STEM and change admission policies, and to promote real-life applications of STEM subjects. Improving social support on campus for women in STEM and retaining female STEM faculty both help. And finally, colleges must counteract stereotype threat and bias.

A Shifting Climate

Jackson engineer Shannon Overly has never had to question her worth as an engineer. She’s used to working with mostly men—she’s one of two women at her engineering firm, out of 11 employees. But she has always worked in supportive environments. “I don’t feel like I get questioned or my opinion is worth any less than anybody else’s on the team,” Overly said.

Unlike Miller, Overly went into engineering because she likes building things. More specifically, she likes building things that help people. Her engineering work is altruistic. That’s always been her goal, she said. And it’s what she’s done. Overly currently works as a data scientist for a small software startup called Teqqa. The software is an app that pairs specific antibiotics to specific patient conditions. The goal, Overly said, is to help doctors adjust to growing antibiotic resistance, and prescribe highly personalized antibiotics.

She previously spent 10 years at Medtronic, making aortic stint graphs. Healthcare has always been at the heart of her work. And that’s by design, she says. “I was interested in building a product that helps people.”

Overly didn’t read Damore’s Google memo, because she knew it would make her angry. But the responses to it, which were largely critical, were far more telling and relevant than the document itself.

Some defenders of Damore argued that criticism of the memo was hypocritical and demonstrated his point that anyone who shared a different opinion was shunned as “anti-diversity”. Others said the memo was just another perspective and should be valued as such.
But others were quick to decry it. Indeed, Damore lost his job for putting Google in the spotlight. Google CEO Sundar Pichai responded to the email with an internal email of his own entitled “Words Matter.” Pichai stated Damore had violated Google’s code of conduct by promoting harmful gender stereotypes in the workplace. He wrote, “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

The idea that males or females are biologically suited to particular careers is pervasive, but not productive.

Overly says skills and experience shouldn’t be a “male-female” thing. “The more, different types of views we can get, the better product you’re going to be able to create,” Overly said. That’s the world she knows.

Indeed, the importance of elevating women in all fields, as a means for progress, economic or otherwise, is recognized at the highest levels. Contrary to Damore’s assertion that gender equality is a wasted cause, gender parity has evolved into a global priority. Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known simply as UN Women, says gender equality has huge implications for the well-being and development of nations. Global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would be higher if women were as involved in the economy as men, Mlambo-Ngcuka says. And like Overly, the UN agrees diverse perspectives are critical to sustainable development and progress in any field and the foundation of that development and progress is in schools.

Early exposure to math and science is critical, Overly agrees. She graduated from Jackson Hole High School in 1998. She didn’t have programs like the robotics team, but she wishes she did. “It’s great that the high school has programs and real-world experience in engineering so they can decide if that’s something they’re interested in,” Overly said. Otherwise, 17-year-old kids get to college and have to “pick what they’re going to do before they even know what that means.”

Wyoming educators recognize the importance of early exposure to math and science, especially for young women. It’s why the NASA Space Grant Consortium hosts a “Women in STEM” conference for young women grads seven through 12 every year.

“Our main goal is to expose younger women to some of the different career options, and also provide role models for them,” said Shawna McBride, Wyoming space grant director. “One of the big road blocks to getting women into science is getting role models so they can visualize themselves in those careers.”

The conference attracts around 500 students from around the state each spring. It offers diverse workshops, from astronomy to falconry to hydrology to robotics.  Like Miller, McBride knows “if you don’t catch people’s attention in middle school, they start to drop off in high school.”

So the conference catches students’ attention early. And it’s working. Her office doesn’t track conference participants after they leave the program, but McBride says there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest it works. She hears from students who have gone through programs in middle school, and in college, and stuck with it. “It does seem like it has a pretty big impact on people,” McBride said. “Hopefully.”

And, programs like NASA’s, that shift STEM culture to be more female-friendly, do seem to be working. At Stanford, Overly’s alma mater, computer science is now the most popular undergraduate degree for women. Whatever barriers or stigmas exist for women in STEM are disintegrating. “As it becomes more and more common, it’s less of an abnormality,” Overly said.

Shannon Overly and Echo Miller

Woman. Scientist.

Miller feels fortunate with her current professional situation. She hears stories from friends at MIT who have to carefully navigate sexism in the workplace. She has never felt such pressures. Jackson, she says, is a fairly progressive place, and she has always felt an equal among her male coworkers—she is the only female engineer in her firm.

Miller just finished a project on which she was the lead. She recalled sending preliminary designs to the client, a large engineering firm. Then a repulsive phone call came from one of the client’s in-house engineers, who spent the “better part of an hour” mansplaining his designs. The designs he presented, Miller said, were not that different from her own—a fact he eventually came to realize.

Miller left the call up in arms about how condescending the client on the other end of the phone had been. But her coworkers didn’t quite see it that way. “We came away from the conversation with very different perceptions,” Miller said. Even though she and her boss both understood that the client’s in-house engineer had felt threatened, only Miller could understand why.

“I felt he was really patronizing,” Miller said. No one else thought it was that big of a deal. Even more egalitarian men are unable to pick up on the nuanced sexist treatment, Miller said.

But where Miller has been largely fortunate in her career, her personal life has not always been so egalitarian. In college, she had to draw a “hard and fast line” that she was “one of the guys.” Otherwise she risked unwanted advances from the men in her program.

Outside her program, meanwhile, she learned not to tell people she was an engineer—especially men. “The fastest way to shut off a conversation was to say I was studying engineering,” Miller said. “He’d find his way to the other end of the bar really fast.”

So when she moved to Jackson between college and grad school, she kept her identity under wraps. “In the interest of actually trying to meet people when I moved here, I didn’t tell anybody I was an engineer. It’s stupid, Miller says, that anybody would be intimidated by a smart woman. But such is still the world.

As Miller suspects, the lack of women in STEM isn’t actually specific to STEM. “Smart” women are intimidating, as is any challenge to gender norms. The United States is in the midst of a national identity crisis, she said. Google employees are publishing memos suggesting women are biologically unfit for certain fields, churches are releasing statements [See: Nashville Statement], decrying same-sex marriage and spelling out “god-given” gender roles. “That’s still a pretty strong influence here in the US,” Miller said. “It’s a hangover from the Puritans or something,” she said. Those kinds of longstanding entrenched beliefs are bound to influence how people perceive their “place” in society, Miller said.

Through determination and will in the face of such entrenched obstacles, Miller has finally found her balance. She now works on a supportive team and has a supportive partner who is not intimidated by her smarts. When the snow starts falling, she cuts back her hours at the engineering firm so she can teach skiing at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Miller, like Overly, feels lucky to practice engineering in Jackson where they are able to defy gender stereotypes across multiple identities: as athletes, as engineers and as professionals. PJH


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