We all dislike the idea of stereotypes, but the truth is, some ideas survive because reality might do little to reject old-school notions. It’s the twenty-first century, but are we still living in a man’s world?
It certainly feels like it in the world of technology and science. As reported by Glamour last year, women hold just 24 percent of jobs in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, even though they make up 48 percent of the workforce overall. But, as a working engineer, I don’t need to read those statistics when I can just look back on my college years or look around myself now.
When I was studying for my undergraduate degree in engineering ten years ago, I was one of a handful of females in the general introductory courses. By the time everyone had chosen their specialty junior year (for me, that was civil), I was just one of three women in a class of forty. In my first professional job following college graduation, my boss was a female, and the office itself was relatively small (i.e. small enough that the ratio of men to women was, for all intents and purposes, equal).
In my current career situation (I moved to New York City last year and continue to work in engineering), it turned out that being flung from small-town southern life to not just a big city but THE big city was the small-fish-in-a-big-pond scenario in more ways than one. In my new job, I’m one of few female engineers, and all of my supervisors are male. My situation is far from a horror story, and I haven’t had to confront any issues that any young professional – male or female – won’t have to face as we forge a path and career. But it’s also not how a budding career woman imagines her dream-job scenario.
How does one navigate within such a gender-dominated industry? Is it okay for me to smile and make eye contact when so many career how-to’s tell me I won’t be taken seriously with such niceties? How does one not get discouraged from speaking up or voicing opinions both personal and professional? And speaking of personal, where is that fine line that one must draw in this setting, when male-female communication can be complex enough without bringing WORK into the equation?
There are plenty of programs out there encouraging young girls to take an interest in the sciences, but is an interest really enough to pave the road to our success?
The issues underlying the gender disparities, just going by pure numbers alone, are vast and complex, and I won’t try to discuss them exhaustively in my first post here on Job Talk. But my primary concern has always been whether or not the real, most relevant issues are being addressed: if we want those numbers to be closer to equal, are we going about it the right away? Yes, women DO bring a unique perspective to leadership and management, a perspective that could benefit every industry and discipline. Does that mean that (in addition to the task of figuring out what’s best for our individual life paths) women must shoulder the burden of proving our gender’s “worth” and ensuring that well-rounded perspective? It’s not one we asked for, and the “fairness” of that isn’t the point. (Life’s not fair, cue the violin music!) I just wonder if how we’re going about addressing the larger questions of equity are more of a stumbling block than anything else.
We don’t see men fighting to prove that they too can make it in traditionally female-dominated vocations. When can we as women just get past the point of increasing numbers and focus on the impact we want to make, no matter how few or how many of us there are? Because frankly, sometimes I’m tired of feeling like we have something to prove.
It’s not that I’m not for encouraging young women to go into the STEM fields – I absolutely am – but what are they supposed to do when they find themselves there? That to me seems like the most important question, and it’s one of the issues I hope to delve into here.